Depending on your occupation, political beliefs and hobbies, there is a very good chance you have a lobbyist representing your interests in the State Legislature.
If you live in Smyrna, you have three lobbyists representing you as council members on the City Council.
Council members Derek Norton, Ron Fennel and Doug Stoner are registered as lobbyists with the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, formerly the State Ethics Commission. Travis Lindley, a candidate for the city’s open Ward 3 seat is registered as well.
Though no other Cobb cities have a registered lobbyist currently serving on city council, other nearby municipalities do. Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul is a lobbyist, as is Councilman Brandon Hembree of Sugar Hill.
Fennel and Stoner did not respond to interview requests, but Norton and Lindley both said their careers will not get in the way of doing their jobs as council members.
Norton advocates on behalf of the medical profession.
“I represent the Medical Association of Georgia, which is specifically an organization of physicians and patients, and at no point do I see any issue that would come up with the city where representing physicians would be a conflict of interest,” Norton said.
Norton added that he believes his familiarity with government processes makes him a better councilman.
Lindley is registered with the Medical Association of Georgia and 20 other health related groups. They include specialists like dentists and ophthalmologists as well as pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline. Atlanta-based Capitol Strategy Group, which Lindley co-founded, provides direct lobbying services, consulting and fundraising.
“I represent patients and physicians at the state level, so every day I get up and make sure that the state of Georgia understands the plight of physicians and patients and does the right thing,” Lindley said. “The issues that the city of Smyrna deal with are entirely different from what we would encounter in terms of health care policy on a state level.”
Georgia Capital Associates, the firm of which Councilman Fennel is president and CEO, represents clients primarily in the hospitality and tourism industries. The firm’s website lists clients including the Atlanta Braves, Cobb Hotel Council and the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. Fennel is also registered with Team Georgia, which advocates for highway and waterway safety issues.
Stoner is registered with the Atlanta Beltline Partnership, the city of Clarkston and LD Squared Inc., which is involved in the education management industry, according to its LinkedIn page.
The other candidates running for Ward 3 had mixed reactions to the relatively high number of lobbyists on Smyrna’s council.
“As long as people know what their place is,” said recording artist and business owner Maryline Blackburn. “When you’re on the playground, you have to know what your boundaries are. As long as you know what your boundaries are, what’s right is right. Everybody knows when you’re doing something, what the ramifications are. Just know what your boundaries are. Do what’s right for the people.”
Marshall Moon, who works security at Adventure Outdoors, said he was unfamiliar with the information but would look into it.
“I believe in diversity, and having three lobbyists and a fourth running is not a diverse city council,” said Jeff Carter, who works in commercial real estate.
Attorney Adam Taylor said he would not have a problem serving with lobbyists unless he saw conflicts of interest.
“I would call them out on that, but I don’t take issue with people being lobbyists on council because they might take issue with me being a lawyer on council,” he said.
Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint had the same tenor.
“My view is there are a lot of lobbyists that have been elected to the Georgia Legislature and a lot of county bodies over the years,” Swint said. “Most have not had a problem with it, but like everything else, it’s not absolute. There can certainly be issues with it. But by itself, it’s not a problem.”
Benita Dodd, vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said lobbyists present the possibility for conflicts of interest, but she said there are safeguards in place to prevent that.
“There’s always the potential for a conflict of interest when you have lobbyists in any kind of representative organization or group,” Dodd said. “The best way that we combat any kind of conflict of interest is by ensuring that we have transparency and that we have full disclosure from all the lobbyists and from all council members.”
Lobbyists have to register with the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission and disclose who they represent and other information. Dodd said lobbyists have as much right to run for office as anyone, and may often be a good choice.
“To be quite fair, lobbyists can bring a lot of intimate knowledge to the table, depending on what the issue is,” Dodd said. “The thing to be careful of every time is to be sure that they are acting in the interest of the voters and constituents as opposed to the special interests that they represent.”
If elected lobbyists do not behave, Dodd said, citizens have ways to show them who is boss.
“That’s the good thing about re-election,” she said. “If the incumbent is acting unethically, that’s where watchdog organizations and citizens and the media have the ability to expose such lack of integrity and reconsider having such individuals as their elected officials.”