By Johnny Edwards
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Fulton County government has hired a team of lobbyists to protect its interests in the upcoming state legislative session, and top priority is blocking any attempt for the creation of Milton County or to shrink the powers of the commission.
According to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, County Manager Zachary Williams put seasoned lobbyist Mike Vaquer on the payroll at $68.75 per hour, in a deal not to exceed $110,000 through June. A list of Vaquer’s 2011 objectives has stopping Milton County legislation as goal No. 1 and “advocacy against legislative items opposed by the board” as goal No. 2.
Two other registered lobbyists, Michele Dunn and Keisha Carter, will be paid $3,000 per month for five months, Vaquer said, which would bring the county’s cost for state lobbying next year to $140,000.
Some Republican lawmakers are irked by the lobbyists’ stated mission and the use of public funds to pay for them. This runs counter to these legislators’ attempts to downsize what they view as a bloated bureaucracy that’s failed to rein in spending as new cities have taken over services.
House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey said he will reintroduce a resolution that would severely limit the commission’s reach through a constitutional amendment. One of several bills expected, this move would be considered an alternative to breaking off north Fulton, which includes Lindsey’s Buckhead territory.
If statewide voters approved, any government of a county more than 80 percent municipalized — Fulton being the sole qualifier — would perform only functions required by law or agreed to in intergovernmental contracts.
Paying lobbyists to derail the measure only proves his point, Lindsey said.
“As a taxpayer, I find it outrageous,” he said. “But unfortunately, I also find it par for the course for the commission.”
Public entities’ using lobbyists, however, has become standard throughout the state.
The State Board of Regents and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority use them. The City of Atlanta uses them. Before becoming a temporary employee, Vaquer was on Fulton County’s lobbying team for the past four years, he said, helping oppose Milton re-creation.
“Do you expect them to roll over and die in the political battle that’s going on?” said Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a nonprofit lobby group advocating government accountability. “Given the assault that Fulton County is under, I’m not surprised that they’re doing what they can to protect their interests in this.”
In the past year, Atlanta had three contracts for state-level lobbying totaling $189,000 and six contracts for federal lobbying totaling $997,600, according to information provided by Intergovernmental Affairs Manager Megan Middleton.
DeKalb County last year spent $42,000 on the state level and $137,315 on the national level, said chief communications officer Burke Brennan. Gwinnett spent $126,610 on state lobbying and about $95,000 on federal, communications director Joe Sorenson said. Cobb Communications Director Robert Quigley said the county pays $120,000 per year for federal lobbying and zero for state, considering the latter one the purpose of membership in the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.
When a request for the same information was made of Fulton’s communications office last week, a spokeswoman responded that the county has an annual contract with Virginia-based Alcade & Fay for $150,000 for federal lobbying, but on the state level it’s handled internally by the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. Asked to confirm the financial arrangement with Vaquer revealed in documents, communications director Ericka Davis said an open records request was necessary.
Vaquer brings a conflict of interest to his new role, said outgoing commissioner Lynne Riley, who takes over House district seat 50 next year and will be Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones’ point person on Milton County. Riley said Vaquer is a registered lobbyist who owns his own business yet is now considered a county employee.
Commissioner Tom Lowe said the deal calls for Vaquer to work for Fulton exclusively. Vaquer, however, said he will do some work on behalf of Savannah-based Water Utility Management LLC that does not conflict with Fulton County.
Fulton had previously used a law firm in a lobbyist role on the state level, but couldn’t get four commission votes for a contract extension. Vaquer was hired by the county manager.
Vaquer heads The Vaquer Firm, which has offices in Savannah and Atlanta, and has previously lobbied on behalf of International Paper, the Georgia Restaurant Association and the Georgia Association of Taxing Officials.
At the Fulton commission’s last meeting he showed them a draft legislative package, and the board is expected to vote on directives next month. Milton County and Fulton reform are just a few of the issues they want monitored.
Other items on the tentative list include seeking counties besides Fulton and DeKalb to contribute to Grady Memorial Hospital, help pay for MARTA, legislation allowing areas to be de-annexed from cities as easily as they can be annexed, more funding for mental health services and equitable treatment under the Transportation Investment Act of 2010.
“We are anticipating it’s going to be a brutal year on all fronts,” Vaquer said.
Commissioner Emma Darnell said she sees nothing wrong with an elected body hiring lobbyists to carry out its will at the capital. She’s livid that the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable selected an executive committee this month and picked no one from the state’s most populous county. With Fulton treated in such a way, the county needs all the help it can get in the General Assembly, she said.
As for Milton County, a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment allowing previously merged counties to re-form by law can’t be held until 2012, in an even-year general election. But Republicans, just six bodies short of a two-thirds super majority in the House and two short of a super majority in the Senate, plan to reintroduce an enabling resolution next year and start building a case for a consolidated Atlanta-Fulton County government.
Opponents believe it would financially eviscerate the state’s main metropolitan engine.
“We believe Fulton County’s strength comes from the fact that it is one county,” Darnell said. “We believe that because we are diverse, that’s our strength.”