Cobb divided on use of outside lobbyists
by Jon Gillooly
March 03, 2013 12:45 AM | 4084 views | 3 3 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Lobbyists, guests and visitors line the hallways of the Georgia State Capitol on Jan. 14, 2013, during the first day of legislative session. Local government agencies are divided on the usefulness of outside lobbyists in putting their interests front and center in the halls of the Capitol.
Lobbyists, guests and visitors line the hallways of the Georgia State Capitol on Jan. 14, 2013, during the first day of legislative session. Local government agencies are divided on the usefulness of outside lobbyists in putting their interests front and center in the halls of the Capitol.
When it comes to ensuring state and federal lawmakers hear local concerns, no two communities are alike. And in Cobb County, local government agencies are similarly divided on the usefulness of outside lobbyists in putting their interests front and center in the halls of the Capitol.

Last year, the Cobb government received 24 responses to a request for proposals to serve as the county’s lobbyist. But the Board of Commissioners never ended up hiring one.

The county has employed lobbyists in the past. From 2005 through 2011, it paid the Holland & Knight firm $120,000 a year for federal lobbying.

“The federal appropriations that we received during the same period was $38 million,” county spokesman Robert Quigley said.

County Chairman Tim Lee did not renew that contract, however.

“I felt that we just didn’t have a clear understanding as to what it is that we needed from a firm,” Lee said. “Without us having a clear understanding, I just felt that it was good to put it on hold, go through this session, have some conversations with some of the delegation after the session closes, and get a better understanding and a better feel for what it is we need so that if we do feel we need somebody or something either externally or internally we can better define it and go after the right solution for us.”

This year, Lee said he’s relying on his intern from Kennesaw State University’s doctorate program, Bradley Gardner, to keep an eye out on bills that impact the county while he decides how to move forward. Cobb lawmakers have told him whatever he decides, they want to know where the Board of Commissioners stands on the issues of the day.

“They would like to make sure whatever we do that they’re getting my opinion, the commission’s opinion, not a lobbying firm’s opinion, so they wanted to hear more directly from me on issues,” Lee said.

The municipal approach

Of Cobb’s six cities, only Marietta and Kennesaw pay for lobbyists.

Marietta city manager Bill Bruton said Clint Austin with ConnectSouth is Marietta’s lobbyist. Marietta has had annual contracts with ConnectSouth since 2005.

“Examples of issues that they have worked for us on include red light camera legislation and federal and state funding including DOT grants for multiuse trails and major road improvements,” Bruton said.

The annual contract is $34,200, Bruton said.

The city also relies on its fire chief, Jackie Gibbs, who is a registered lobbyist, to step in when needed, Bruton said.

The Marietta firm of Bentley, Bentley and Bentley has served as the city of Kennesaw’s attorney and lobbyist for more than 30 years, Kennesaw spokeswoman Pamela Davis said.

“In FY 2012, the city paid BBB about $250,000 for all the services they provide,” Davis said.

The cities of Acworth, Austell, Powder Springs and Smyrna do not hire lobbyists.

“We’ve never had a lobbyist,” Acworth Mayor Tommy Allegood said. “Being a member of the Georgia Municipal Association, we kind of rely on them for information. We don’t have any direct contract with the lobbyist through GMA, but we get regular updates from the GMA.”

Allegood and Mayors Pat Vaughn and Joe Jerkins say if they need something for their city, they pick up the phone and call the lawmakers who represent them.

“Really and truly our elected leaders are our lobbyists, the way we look at it is certainly state Rep. Ed Setzler and Sen. Lindsey Tippins, they do a fine job for us,” Allegood said.

Acworth City Manager Brian Bulthuis said Acworth pays GMA a $6,488.51 membership fee.

“Its main purpose is training elected and staff and being a resource for elected officials and staff on common issues which we all face,” Bulthuis said. “It’s a resource for jobs. It has group health insurance, workers compensation insurance, liability insurance, retirement programs. It is much more than a lobby company.”

Schools take direct route

Marietta City Schools Superintendent Dr. Emily Lembeck said her system hasn’t had a lobbyist during her tenure as superintendent, which began in 2005.

“Really, I work directly with a lot of legislators, and I keep up with what is happening daily in the Legislature, and I just feel that we don’t need to be hiring a lobbyist,” Lembeck said.

Lembeck said Marietta is a member of such groups as the Georgia School Boards Association and the Georgia School Superintendents Association, groups like GMA that have lobbying arms, although that’s not the reason Marietta is a member.

Marietta paid the Georgia School Boards Association $6,577 and the Georgia School Superintendents Association $3,929 in dues for the fiscal year 2013.

“They do lobby as an umbrella organization on issues they feel are important,” Lembeck said. “I belong to GSSA for professional development and collegial contacts. You’re a sole superintendent in an organization, every once in a while you need to speak with others and share experiences with them. GSBA as well for training and other support. They do send out updates daily of things that happen in the Legislature. I look at the things that pertain to us and things I have an interest in because I’m not at the Legislature every day. But I don’t join GSSA for lobbying.”

Lembeck said it’s important that lawmakers know her.

“I do think that building those relationships are important, and they are our local representatives, so I feel comfortable working or reaching out to them even though we may not always agree,” Lembeck said. “You can always respectfully agree to disagree on things but ultimately having relationships are important.”

The Cobb School District pays Karen Hallacy of east Cobb $1,500 per month for up to four months while General Assembly is in session to serve as its lobbyist. Hallacy, who has long been active in the state PTA, is in her second year as the district’s lobbyist.

Cobb Board of Education Chairman Randy Scamihorn, who was just elected to office, said he’s still learning the nuts and bolts of the system, but in general he believes having a lobbyist represent the system is important.

“I think lobbyists serve an important function in two ways,” Scamihorn said. “One is it keeps whatever organization they’re working for it keeps their name out in front so hopefully it influences decisions, and two, they’re down there to pick up all the details and nuances and make sure that we understand what’s going on in case there’s legislation that might be detrimental to Cobb County. That’s not an accusation, it’s only a thought because overall we have a great Cobb County delegation.”

Contracting for consulting

The Cobb-Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority uses GeorgiaLink Public Affairs Group, paying it $15,000 per year. It has used that firm since 2009 and hires them on an annual contract basis. The Authority governs the Cobb Galleria Centre, Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and Galleria Specialty Shops, using hotel/motel tax collections and other revenues.

Lanie Shipp, executive director of the Town Center Area Community Improvement District, said her CID hires a lobbyist only when it needs a particular task accomplished. During the 2012 General Assembly session, the CID hired Mark Sanders with Sanders & Associates to shepherd a bill through the House and Senate that would allow the CID to use funds for studies and improvements to McCollum Airport. Sanders, who was paid $9,000 for his services, was successful in getting the bill passed.

“His service was well worth the fee,” Shipp said.

The Cumberland Community Improvement District pays XChange GA, LLC $4,000 a month for state lobbying services. It hired that firm in December 2008 on an annual contract.

It pays the firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP $10,000 a month for federal lobbyist services. The CID hired that firm in August 2006.

Cumberland CID Chairman Tad Leithead said he prefers to call them “political consultants” rather than lobbyists.

“The lobbyist function sort of indicates the passage or non passage of specific bills,” Leithead said. “This is more of a relationship building, opportunity procurement sort of a role.”

Leithead said when the Cumberland CID originally hired Akin Gump, earmarks for transportation projects were still a part of the process of getting funding for projects.

“Washington doesn’t do earmarking anymore, but there’s still the process of trying to procure federal funding for specific projects,” Leithead said. “As compared to what we pay them annually if you look at the federal funding that we’ve received for projects, it vastly exceeds (what the CID pays for lobbying).”

Leithead said the federal lobbyist the CID uses is James Tucker, while the state lobbyist is Elizabeth Lavack.
Comments-icon Post a Comment
Just Wait
March 04, 2013
Why should politicians need lobbyist to lobby politicians?
March 03, 2013
Thanks, MDJ, for following the money. This is what Otis Jr. would have done and it's nice to know you are continuing.

Also, why would Lee need lobbyists when he has his cronies at the chamber? Makes perfect sense that he doesn't feel the need for a lobbyist.
Watch the money
March 04, 2013
Is the city of Kennesaw single handedly supporting the law firm of Bentley, Bentley and Bentley? $250,000 a year from just the City of Kennesaw??? Why does Kennesaw have to have a lobbyist at all, much less pay at least 3 times as much as any other city??
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