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Fulton Development Authority gains support for self-reforms and a new member

Michel "Marty" Turpeau, board chair and interim executive director at the Development Authority of Fulton County, speaks to the Board of Commissioners July 14.

The scandal-plagued Development Authority of Fulton County board gained much support for its self-reforms — and a new member, the mayor of Johns Creek — from county commissioners July 14, while two proposed new regulations of its work were tabled.

Commissioner Lee Morris, who proposed those regulations and has called for the end of the DAFC, successfully put heat on Michel “Marty” Turpeau, its board chair and interim executive director for handling of a financial scandal. But Morris had to leave before his reform legislation aimed at per-diem payments and financial disclosures could be heard, saying he had to pick up his son at the airport. His legislation was tabled.

Michel “Marty” Turpeau, board chair and interim executive director at the Development Authority of Fulton County, speaks to the Board of Commissioners July 14.

Meanwhile, most other commissioners largely backed Turpeau and the DAFC as suffering for a scandal caused by already ousted leaders, with some even attributing the scrutiny to racism or classism as board leadership has shifted from white and North Fulton-focused to African American and South Fulton-focused.

“I will admit that in the past, things might have been a bit loosey-goosey,” said Turpeau, “but we’ve got the goose, we’ve tamed the goose, and now we’re just trying not to have the goose cooked.”

Commissioner Liz Hausmann gained 6-0 approval from the Board of Commissioners for her nomination of Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker to the DAFC board. Bodker previously told SaportaReport that he intends to help with the reform.

The nomination drew a number of public complaints about allegations of various ethical violations against Bodker dating to 2013, which Hausmann said were political and went nowhere. Hausmann cited his variety of government experience, and she and Pitts both noted his background as a certified public accountant, though his CPA license has lapsed.

“[DAFC] board members need to get ready, because he’s going to look at every item on that agenda with a fine-tooth comb,” Pitts said of Bodker.

Pitts himself has a nomination decision to make: whether to keep current DAFC treasurer Sam Bacote, who spoke at the July 14 meeting, or name someone else. It’s the last board seat still awaiting a nominee, with no more coming open until 2023. Pitts has said he is waiting to see how the scandal plays out. Julian Bene, a DAFC and critic whose open-records discoveries of questionable payments triggered the scandal, spoke in public comments about his petition for Pitts to name a reformer. “If you don’t do this, it will be business as usual at DAFC,” he said.

The DAFC has long been influential and controversial for use of its power to grant tax abatements to real estate projects by issuing tax-exempt bonds and collecting fees from the deals. As part of a document hunt following but unrelated to his legal challenge to a court validation of four such deals last year, Bene discovered  hundreds of thousands of dollars in per diem payments made to some of the volunteer board members for work as basic as signing documents, which forced former powerful former chairman Bob Shaw to leave the board after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the story. The scandal has also raised scrutiny of the DAFC’s hiring of lobbyists, an unusual practice among such authorities, and potential conflicts of interest with a new policy allowing board members to propose grants to local organizations.

Shaw is the center of the web of the current controversy. Turpeau has said the rest of the board was surprised to accidentally learn of his questionable per diems themselves last year, well before the scandal, and undertook reforms and the leadership change. Critics like Bene and Morris say the scandal is just part of longtime transparency problems with DAFC involving some of the current board members, and that it is suspicious none of them alerted the public or the BOC about the per diem concerns. They also question more recent board decisions like Turpeau’s dual role as board chair and executive director — he is resigning the latter job in response — and the local grants policy.

Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris questions Turpeau about the DFAC at the July 14 meeting.

Morris’s legislation, tabled by the airport trip, seeks to limit DAFC per diems to $105 and require board members to file financial disclosures like political office-holders do. Turpeau said the board is already self-reforming with similar moves. In essence, it’s a battle to see who can reform the DAFC first, and whether the real goal may be to dissolve the body or to keep it — and its power and fees. The backdrop of the battle is DAFC’s uniquely controversial role in grant tax breaks within cities with their own development authorities, especially Atlanta, where the City Council, Board of Education and the local authority have demanded it cease.

Another big factor is the DAFC’s genuine attention shift to areas that in reality are not hot real estate markets and pioneering demands for affordable or workforce housing, rarely heard of under Shaw’s leadership.

At the BOC meeting, Morris grilled Turpeau, who often struggled to answer questions about his own per diems and salary, but also aggressively defended his leadership.

“The truth is, of course, the public has totally lost confidence and trust in DAFC and its leadership, and that’s just a fact,” Morris said of the self-reform claims, suggesting the board never would have revealed the scandal on its own. He was particularly irritated by Turpeau’s presentation showing some other Fulton bodies that get bigger per diems, saying it “appears this board is terribly focused on the money you all can put in your pockets.”

Turpeau pushed back, saying the volunteer board deserved per diems for “hard work” and that AJC reporting had “distorted” what he had been paid as executive director.

Kyle Lamont, a board member appointed in 2019, defended the self-reform attempts and new focus.  “Whether it was our fault or not, that is not the point,” he said of the scandal, saying instead the point is reform and a way to “move forward in an equitable and just fashion.”

Most other commissioners called for further reforms, particularly around Turpeau leaving the executive director job as soon as possible and being more transparent about the search for a replacement. But they also showed support for the DAFC.

Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman of South Fulton’s District 6 said criticism of Turpeau was largely unfair. “What has happened is, the sins of the father are on the son,” she said. “… We are dealing with African American leadership in place [to answer] for something that happened in the past, and for some reason you all have to have that scarlet letter.”

Commissioner Marvin Arrington Jr. of District 5, which covers parts of South Fulton, East Point and East Atlanta, was blunter. He said Morris’s proposal of a lower per diem was racist, as are questioning the DAFC’s use of lobbyists and the idea of dissolving the authority.

“I love Commissioner Morris. Commissioner Morris is my friend. But my friend is racist,” said Arrington, who went on to use profanity in denouncing the scrutiny. “Every time we get somewhere, they want to move the goal post. … Look at the silence for 40 years when white people were in charge.”

Morris has been a prominent critic of the DAFC since at least 2014 and was a driver of such reforms as getting it to publish its agenda, reveal the locations of projects getting abatements, and open board seats to representatives of public school districts, whose budgets take the brunt of tax breaks. He is also a board member of Invest Atlanta, that city’s own development authority, the one that has ordered DAFC out of town. The DAFC has been targeted by state legislative reform attempts in recent years as well.

North Fulton Commissioners Hausmann and Bob Ellis both called for certain reforms but were dismissive of criticism from other angles, essentially saying it goes with the development authority territory. Hausmann said the wider controversy about tax breaks is really about who gets the fees for making them. She suggested DAFC starts using the roughly $7 million in fees it has banked on “economic development,” such as trips to try to attract developers.

Ellis said development authorities will always generate controversies about transparency and may need reform from time to time. He said critics of the DAFC’s actual spending problem are trying to “conflate” that with the debate about tax breaks. He likened that to the county’s longtime election problems becoming fodder for presidential election conspiracy theories, which consumed another portion of that day’s meeting.

Commissioner Natalie Hall of the Atlanta-area District 4 called for more information about DAFC’s finances but said she does not want to dissolve the body because it does good work. Turpeau said an audit should be delivered to DAFC in August and will be available to the BOC a short time later.

Pitts did not comment on the DAFC situation while moderating the discussion, but later made a joke alluding to Shaw’s reported practice of taking multiple per diem payments for simply signing a series of documents. Pitts said the BOC had 59 items on agenda and if he made $200 for handling each, he would be “in great shape.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly implied that Julian Bene’s open records request was part of his legal challenge to DAFC bond validations. The records request was not directly related and was conducted after those challenges had gone to court.

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