In Gwinnett County, developers and county commissioners have a tradition of entanglement that goes back decades.
That’s true to a degree in almost every county, of course. Developers need rezonings and other favors; commissioners need campaign funds and votes. But as documented in a new grand jury report, the symbiotic, often corrupt relationship between developers and politicians is particularly strong in Gwinnett County.
The biggest news out of the grand jury was its decision to indict Commissioner Kevin Kenerly on charges involving $1 million in alleged bribes. While its public report is largely silent about the evidence that led to Kenerly’s indictment, the report nonetheless documents case after case of “decisions involving millions of dollars made with little or no information or for the most venal reasons.”
Take, for example, the purchase of 8.3 acres from a financially troubled but well-connected developer. Gwinnett paid $1.2 million for the property, almost four times its price four years earlier, even though commissioners were told the parcel was useless as parkland without a $1 million footbridge to make it accessible.
At one point in the negotiations, then-Senior Superior Court Judge James Oxendine even summoned a county staff member to his judicial chambers and — as a favor to the property owner, a friend’s son — strong-armed the county into raising the price it paid.
According to the grand jury, in fact, the only explanation for the property purchase was “to bail out the son of an old friend of several members of the Board of Commissioners.”
While investigating another transaction, this one involving developer Marvin Hewatt, the grand jury discovered that Hewatt had given Commission Chairman Charles Bannister free use of a campaign billboard and a van — neither was reported as a contribution.
Bannister was instrumental in arranging the purchase of land from Hewatt’s firm for twice the amount set by county appraisers. He also denied meeting with Hewatt about the transaction, a claim directly contradicted by witnesses.
Rather than be indicted for perjury, Bannister resigned.
Bannister told the grand jury that he had pushed the sale in part as payback to a fellow commissioner who opposed it. As the grand jury concluded, the deal was used “to benefit a long-time friend and political supporter of Charles Bannister. Just as disturbingly, over one million dollars of taxpayer money was used to make a political point.”
The nonchalance with which Bannister, Kenerly and others used taxpayer money to reward friends and punish enemies is pretty stunning, and suggests a long-standing cultural mindset on the Gwinnett commission. The good work of the grand jury, assisted by District Attorney Danny Porter, may help alter that culture, but only if voters do their part.
For example, state law allows county commissions to use executive sessions to discuss property transactions. The theory is that public knowledge of potential land deals could drive up the cost to taxpayers.
In Gwinnett, however, secrecy was used for the opposite purpose, to hide artificially inflated prices. As a result, the grand jury recommends that all executive sessions be taped, which makes sense. The mere fact that a meeting is being recorded would discourage abuse of executive sessions for illegal or unethical purposes.
In fact, the suggestion makes so much sense that it ought to be applied to all local governments. Until such a state law can be passed, however, Gwinnett voters ought to insist that commissioners implement that safeguard on their own.
Ordinarily, two other safeguards also discourage corruption in land-use and land-acquisition decisions. The first is a reliance on professional staff to produce decisions grounded in fact and law; the second is the necessity of getting a majority of commissioners, not just one, to back a decision.
In Gwinnett County, both safeguards were circumvented. Staff was given little input into property deals, the grand jury found, leaving decisions to be made on a political basis.
Through a practice known as “district courtesy,” commissioners also gave each other complete leeway on decisions affecting their district, making each commissioner a king or queen of their piece of the county, without real oversight.
Apparently, that made it easy to forget that they are public servants, rather than royalty.