Fulton County residents are concerned about the county development authority’s use of per diem expenses in which the authority’s members can charge the county $200 for each meeting’s agenda item.
Julian Bene, a former board member with Invest Atlanta, the city’s development arm, said he opposes Fulton’s appointment of Bob Shaw, its former longtime board chair, to rejoin the authority to replace member Tom Tidwell. According to an AJC/WSB-TV joint investigative report published June 1, Shaw is one of the authority board members who racked up thousands of dollars in per diem charges during the past two and a half years.
Bene said Shaw is “using the per diems to pad his bank account. I also ask you to look into this because it goes much deeper. There’s a huge conflict of interest when they’re able to pay themselves in the way the newspaper and Channel 2 have revealed yesterday evening. … In addition, the board members have appointed themselves slush funds, $25,000 a piece, which is again an inducement to approve every tax break that comes before them. The public is outraged. There are 11 things this board should do to fix this.”
Bene was one of several residents who spoke at the Fulton Board of Commissioners’ June 2 meeting at Assembly Hall in downtown Atlanta, where the board removed Shaw’s reappointment from its consent agenda before approving that item, and there was no discussion about it from the board.
The decision to remove Shaw’s reappointment from the consent agenda came before the meeting’s public comment portion, so commissioners, especially District 3’s Lee Morris, who sponsored that item and asked for its removal, were aware of the issue prior to the meeting.
Of the 187 individuals submitting remarks during the public comment period, 18 said they opposed the authority’s per diem policies and/or Shaw’s reappointment and none said they supported either one.
Those who commented also said they were concerned about the tax breaks the authority gives to large companies for bringing new developments to the county.
Former District 32 State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said he’s worried about both the authority’s tax breaks and conflicts of interest.
“Several board members and the CEO have been putting money in their own pockets and rubber-stamping almost every break that developers request,” he said. “Board members’ per diems are running as high as $56,000 a year. (There are) lucrative contracts with firms where a former board member worked. An extraordinarily high salary for the head of a five-person rubber-stamp outfit, these are serious conflicts of interest.
“We can see why the board would OK almost all developer breaks that come to them. … The … authority should file financial disclosures at least … to possibly identify any conflicts of interest. There is no other local development authority that pays per diem to its board members. Instruct its board members to be paid only the $5,000 per diem that’s equal to federal government board members.”
Bill Bosley of Atlanta added, “The manner by which your development authority operates is disgraceful. Please clean this up.”
In an emailed statement in response to Bene’s comments, Tidwell said, “The $25,000 fund allotment for each board member is a policy adopted by the executive committee without the knowledge, consent or approval of the remaining board members. Board members Tom Tidwell and Steve Broadbent objected to this policy once they learned about it.”
In an email in response to the article, Michel “Marty” Turpeau, the authority’s board chair, said Bene, represented by attorney John Woodham, “is in active litigation against (the authority) regarding four economic development opportunities being facilitated by the authority,” adding his comments were meant to discredit the authority while improving his outcome in the court case.
Regarding Bene’s “slush fund” comment, Turpeau said it’s “actually an economic development investment policy to further economic development programs and support community organizations throughout Fulton County. … Any board member making a recommendation for his or her district must submit a written proposal regarding the economic development program or initiative requesting monetary support and then it must be approved by the (authority) board.”
Turpeau also defended the authority’s per diem policy, saying it was authorized to receive them at that amount by the board of commissioners. He added the per diems are paid to all board members, but the board’s officers receive more per diems because they have more meetings and responsibilities and spend more time on authority business than the rest of the board members. Turpeau added the board, following extensive reviews and amendments, updated its policies and practices in November to make them more transparent.
In a follow-up email, Turpeau issued an updated statement on the matter.
“The Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC) has been notified by Bob Shaw that he will ask Commissioner Lee Morris to remove his name for consideration to be reappointed to the authority’s board and that we should consider May 31, 2021, the expiration of his term, as the last day of his board service,” he said. “We are grateful for Mr. Shaw’s 26 years of service helping to bring quality economic development to Fulton County which improved infrastructure, greatly expanded the tax base and created and retained jobs for County residents.
“The (authority’s) board of directors is eager to continue to work together with our Fulton County Board of Commissioners to foster strong economies and create even stronger communities that the residents and future residents of Fulton County deserve. We will further strengthen our policies and practices, as we did regarding our per diem policy and bylaws in November 2020, and provide extensive training to ensure current and new members of the board will have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities.
“With the support of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, we will complete our strategic plan which includes a focus on bringing more quality development to underserved areas of Fulton County along with safe and affordable housing options to support community retention. We remain steadfast in our mission to diversify the tax base, provide quality jobs, attract and retain businesses and increase economic opportunities for the communities we serve throughout Fulton County.”