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Local Govt & Politics

    The Fort McPherson redevelopment authority has approved a $3.5 million buyout of its former lead developer, putting an end to his plans for a residential and commercial project that promised to be a major economic boon on Atlanta’s southside. The board of the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority approved the deal late last month with developer Stephen Macauley after a nearly three year relationship and months of acrimony. Terms were made public Thursday as part of board discussion of the authority’s audit. The board had voted in October to cut ties with Macauley. The break-up was expected to cost several million dollars under the terms of Macauley’s contract, including for his work on a master plan. In a news release, the authority said it “appreciates Macauley and its team’s commitment to excellence and their more than two years of working with the community.” Macauley declined to comment. Fort Mac closed in 2011, delivering an economic blow to nearby neighborhoods already ravaged by the foreclosure crisis and the Great Recession. In 2015, the authority acquired the 488-acre site from the Army and sold 330 acres to filmmaker Tyler Perry, who has since developed a sprawling movie studio. Macauley was named the developer for the remaining 145 acres of the former Army post in May 2017. He and partners proposed to develop about 2,500 residences, offices, shops, lodging, restaurants and a performing arts center under a long-term land lease. But relations between Macauley and the authority, also known as Fort Mac LRA, grew strained. In February, Macauley and Fort Mac LRA appeared to be on the cusp of a new development deal, but the relationship devolved into allegations by each side that the other was in default. The allegations contained some racial overtones. Macauley asserted in an email that he’d been told an adviser to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms had said Macauley was being “coddled” because he is white. Fort Mac LRA’s former executive director also expressed doubts about Macauley’s financial wherewithal. Macauley, meanwhile, alleged the agency had strung him along with needless delays and altered deal terms. Representatives of the city also approached Perry about taking on the project amid tensions with Macauley. Last summer, Macauley urged the authority board to stick with him, and he eventually added David Moody, the leader of one of the Atlanta area’s largest minority-owned construction companies, as a new partner in a bid to salvage a deal. In August, Fort Mac LRA sold a former command building for $17 million to a different developer, Easterly Government Properties, for a future U.S. Food and Drug Administration facility. The buyout includes a $1 million payment to Macauley related to the FORSCOM building under a term in his contract known as an “excluded property fee.” The sale to Easterly made the FORSCOM building unavailable for Macauley to develop, triggering the clause. Fort Mac LRA continues to seek a new executive director and the authority remains at odds with the city over debt the city says is due following the sale of the FORSCOM building.
  • The first bill of the new legislative session headed to the Governor’s desk would require online market facilitators to collect and remit sales tax to the state.  House Bill 276 would require online retail companies such as Amazon, online travel agencies like Airbnb and VRBO, and ride shares that collect payment on a product or service to also collect and remit sales tax to the state.  Rep. Brett Harrell (R-Snellville) sponsored the bill says it will put brick and mortar businesses on a level playing field.  “It’s clean across the board. It treats everyone the same. If you have a taxable product or service, it is taxable under this bill. If you do not, it is not,” he tells WSB’s Sandra Parrish.  The measure is expected to raise $150 million annually for the state with some estimates are as high as $750 million.  “These marketplace sellers are from all over the country and the world that sell to our Georgia consumers. They currently owe taxes on these sales, but Georgia has not had an efficient manner to collect these taxes,” says Sen. Chuck Hufstetler (R-Rome) who pushed for the bill in the Senate.  He says 37 other states currently have similar laws in place.  It could take effect as soon as April 1 if Gov. Brian Kemp signs it.
  • Jenna Garland, an aide to former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, has taken an initial step to appeal her conviction last month on two misdemeanor counts of violating the state’s open records law. Garland’s attorneys filed a motion last week with Fulton State Court Judge Jane Morrison requesting a new trial. It’s a routine legal move and one that does not prevent Garland from later appealing if the judge does not agree to retry the case. Garland’s attorneys argue, among other things, that the verdict was contrary to the evidence and faulted the court for its instructions to the jury and for failing to grant a defense motion for a mistrial. The former Reed press secretary had indicated she would appeal. She faced a looming deadline to file an appeal or seek a new trial. Scott Grubman, one of Garland’s lawyers, called this “the first step in the appeals process.” “We look forward to our day in court to argue why we think the verdict is incorrect and should be overturned,” he said. Garland became the first person charged and convicted of criminally violating the Georgia Open Records Act, a case that observers said could have broad implications for government transparency. The jury found she instructed a subordinate, Lillian Govus, to delay production of water billing records that were politically damaging to Reed and members of City Council. Morrison sentenced Garland to pay fines totaling $1,500 for the two counts. The state argued Garland involved herself in requests by Channel 2 Action News for water billing records for Reed’s brother, Tracy, and council members. She instructed Govus in 2017 via text to “drag this out as long as possible,” and “provide information in the most confusing format available” after Channel 2 requested records related to Tracy Reed. Later, Garland told Govus to “hold all” records until a Channel 2 producer asked for an update on council billing records she requested, even though the records were ready to be released. Channel 2 had to threaten legal action before the city released the council billing records. The state opened a criminal investigation into open records practices at City Hall after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 published the text exchanges in March 2018. “We are pleased a jury has already agreed with us that these actions were in clear violation of the Georgia Open Records Act,” Attorney General Chris Carr said in a statement. “I’m proud of our legal team for their hard work to protect and promote openness and transparency in government, and we will continue to do that.”
  • Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms took the unusual step of issuing an executive order late Monday that asks the City Council to approve legislation that would create the Office of Inspector General, a new city position to combat corruption. But mayoral orders are meant to apply for short periods of time, including during times of emergency, and must be upheld by the City Council. Bottoms’ order on the Inspector General has no binding effect, and added a layer of contentiousness to an important debate at a critical time: the start of a Georgia General Assembly session expected to feature another attempt by lawmakers to put Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport under state control. Several city officials saw Bottoms’ order as politics masquerading as policy. “The mayor should have written the council a letter,” said City Council President Felicia Moore. “I don’t know who is advising her, but [the executive order] was improper.” A multi-year federal corruption investigation at City Hall that has resulted in guilty pleas and indictments of high-ranking bureaucrats and contractors. It has fueled arguments by state legislators that city officials can’t be trusted with a valuable economic engine like the airport. City officials hope that creating a powerful and independent Inspector General to investigate corruption and refer potential crimes to prosecutors will demonstrate that they are serious about cleaning up City Hall, and help frustrate any takeover effort. But Bottoms’ executive order calls for placing the city’s two existing independent oversight agencies — ethics and audit — under the new Inspector General, and giving the IG control over their staffs. It’s a move both offices see as a threat to their independence. “I don’t know how it purports to serve the public interest,” City Auditor Amanda Noble said of Bottoms’ order. The auditor and ethics officer have jointly investigated issues surrounding Bottoms’ administration, including circumstances surrounding her campaign staff being hired by the city, and paid with city funds before the mayor was sworn into office. The inquiry found that the mayor’s campaign workers weren’t properly screened and were paid from restricted funds with no relationship to their jobs. It also found several of Bottoms’ campaign staff were compensated with city tax dollars for a pay period before they even submitted job applications. The joint report confirmed most of the findings of an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation published in March. Michael Smith, a spokesman for the mayor, said the decision to create the Office of Inspector General was driven by the recommendation set forth by the Task Force for the Promotion of Public Trust — established by Bottoms last year to make recommendations about the best measures for rooting out corruption, waste and fraud. “This is no environment for half measures,” Smith wrote in an email. “The legislature and people of Georgia need to know that the City has made great strides in transparency and accountability, and an independent Inspector General with broad jurisdiction and subpoena power is the next and necessary step.” All last year, city officials debated how to effectively establish an office governed by an independent board to investigate impropriety and corruption. At times, politics infused the proceedings. The council passed legislation establishing an Independent Compliance Officer in March. Bottoms agreed to fund the office with $800,000 in this year’s budget. Meanwhile, the task force recommended that the position’s named be changed to an Inspector General that it be given authority, including subpoena power. Councilwoman Jennifer Ide, who sponsored the compliance officer bill and is working with the Bottoms’ administration on the Inspector General ordinance, said Tuesday that specifics of how the IG office will function are still being finalized. Former State Senator Vincent Fort first proposed an IG for the city in 2017 shortly before he announced his mayoral campaign. As the federal investigation heated up, other candidates including Bottoms, adopted the idea for themselves. Fort said an effective IG requires the ability to issue subpoenas, compel testimony, refer matters for prosecution, and watchdog violations of the state’s open records law. “Anything less than those four things makes it a paper tiger,” Fort said. The city’s current draft ordinance is scheduled to be discussed at the council’s Finance Executive Committee meeting Wednesday. Officials expect a lively debate. As for the mayor’s executive order, Ide said that it appears Bottoms was merely communicating her enthusiasm about the new position. “I think it’s encouraging the City Council to pass the Inspector General position, which is what we are doing,” Ide said. Ide confirmed that under the current draft legislation, the auditor and ethics boards would be merged into one entity but have separate governing committees. She said the auditor and ethics officer would still operate independently and have control over their staffs. She also said that having all three offices under one umbrella would allow for better communication and coordination. Everyone in the city worked collectively “to get this done early in the legislative session,” Ide said. The original legislation drafted by Ide to create the IG position did not have either the auditor or ethics officer subordinate to the IG. It is unclear whether a majority of council members will support that move. Nichola Hines, chair elect of the city’s Board of Ethics and Independent Compliance, expressed concern about the proposed legislation in letters sent Tuesday to Moore and Bottoms. “The proposed legislation to establish the Office of Inspector General raises several concerns, the foremost being, the erosion of the independence of the Ethics Office,” Hines wrote. Hines said that the role of the Inspector General was more prosecutorial  and should focused on crimes. She argued that the IG and the ethics officer should be equals. “The regulatory and advisory function of the Ethics Office cannot be subordinate to the investigatory function of the Inspector General and must be independent,” Hines said. “Furthermore, a horizontal structure removes potential bottlenecks from an already full pipeline of ongoing investigations which fall into distinct jurisdictional categories.”
  • U.S. Rep. John Lewis is back on the House floor today, less than two weeks since announcing a diagnosis of stage four pancreatic cancer. He came to the chamber to vote with Democrats in favor of a resolution that would limit President Donald Trump’s ability to take further military action in Iran. That action is in response to Trump’s decision to authorize the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, which led to a counter-attack Tuesday night targeting U.S. troops in Iraq. There were no casualties, and afterward both the Iranian government and the Trump administration downplayed the possibility of additional use of weaponry. Still, Democrats question Trump’s decision to take Soleimani out and say Congress should have been consulted first. Lewis, 79, announced he has cancer on Dec. 29 and pledged to continue working while undergoing treatment in Washington. “Good to be back,” he said as he entered the chamber. Read more | John Lewis gives AJC a look at coming cancer fight Also | John Lewis likely to stay in D.C. for treatment of pancreatic cancer
  • WASHINGTON -- U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s office is starting to take shape. Today, she announced some key staff decisions, including hiring one Johnny Isakson’s former chief of staff. Joan Carr now holds the same position in Loeffler’s office, which is operating out of temporary space in the basement of one of the Senate’s office buildings. Carr also served as chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, who unlike Loeffler and Isakson was a Democrat. Other hires announced today include Chad Yelinski, who will serve as legislative director, and Kerry Rom, Loeffler’s communications director. Yelinski held the same role in the office of U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican from North Carolina. Rom arrives  from the office of U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas. “I am thrilled to hit the ground running in the Senate with such a strong leadership team in Joan, Chad and Kerry, and we will have more key staff hires coming soon,” Loeffler said in a news release. “I’m also very glad that so many of Johnny Isakson’s staffers are staying with me. They earned such a strong reputation for delivering the kind of great customer service our Georgia constituents deserve.” Loeffler’s office also announced that other  members of Isakson’s team -- including those working on legislation, constituent casework and field offices back in Georgia -- are also sticking around.
  • Kelly Loeffler’s swearing on Monday evening in will follow Senate traditions, including a walk down the aisle with her Georgia colleague, the vice president presiding and an immediate do-over for the cameras. Here is the rundown: U.S. Sen. David Perdue will escort Loeffler down the aisle, adhering to the tradition of the senior senator leading his her counterpart down the aisle. Vice President Mike Pence, in his role as the Senate’s president, will administer the oath of office around 5 p.m. Loeffler will carry a family Bible that she will use to swear upon. Because Senate rules prohibit photography inside the chambers, members always re-enact the ceremony in the Old Senate Chambers. So, any pictures you see of Loeffler taking the oath with her family by her side will be of that re-enactment. You can watch the swearing in on the C-SPAN website, which has a live feed of all Senate proceedings. Loeffler is replacing U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, whose last day was Dec. 31. Loeffler will serve in the Senate through the end of the year, at least. She is expected to run in a November special election to fulfill the remainder of Isakson’s term, which expires in 2022. Ahead of her swearing in, Loeffler has been connecting with GOP activists and elected officials whose support she will need if she hopes to remain in the Senate.
  • The Peach Drop won’t happen this New Year’s Eve, but the iconic — and gigantic — peach is on display at the Fulton County Government Center through the end of January. Fulton County has started a fundraising campaign in hopes of bringing back the Atlanta tradition in future years. In the meantime, the 8-foot-tall, 800-pound fiberglass peach is stationed inside Fulton County’s atrium, 141 Pryor St. SW. “Our peach is one of the most iconic New Year’s traditions in the nation,” Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said. “We have an opportunity to come together to keep this tradition alive.” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced in November that the peach wouldn’t drop on New Year’s Eve for the first time in three decades. The mayor cited “location challenges” as the reason. The Peach Drop debuted in 1989 at Underground Atlanta. The event, inspired by the ball drop in New York City’s Times Square, became an iconic event sometimes attracting 100,000 people. After a private developer purchased Underground Atlanta, the city moved the Peach Drop to Woodruff Park for New Year’s 2017. It was brought back to Underground Atlanta last year, but Bottoms said she felt like it was “an afterthought event, not a premier event.” Although county offices are closed on New Year’s Eve, visitors can still take a photo with the peach until 5 p.m. Tuesday. It will remain on display during normal business hours through Jan. 31. Photos with the peach can be shared on social media with the hashtag: #FulcoPeach.
  • A year after her macaroni and cheese dish went viral, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has once again shared the results of her baked pasta dish on Twitter. Not long after noon on Christmas, Bottoms posted a screenshot of a text thread that included her mac and cheese. » RELATED: Atlanta Mayor Bottoms’ mac and cheese becomes the talk of Twitter “....and my Mac N Cheese is STILL good,” she captioned the post. She also included the hashtag #iainteverscared, asserting she wasn’t shaken by last year’s backlash.  At the time, many said her dish was “dry.” It’s a good thing Bottoms has thick skin, too. Much like last year, Twitter users once again remarked that her meal seemed to lack moisture. “Still dry ....” one user replied. » RELATED: Atlanta mayor’s sweet potato pies get more love than her mac and cheese “Year 2 and still dry!!!” said another. It wasn’t all shady responses, however. Some praised the mayor’s 2019 mac and cheese. “Let the mayor be plz! Dang! That Mac n cheese look good!” one user exclaimed. Another hoped to be invited over tweeting, “What time is dinner? 😋” » RELATED: Atlanta Mayor Bottoms viral ‘More than Mac’ campaign raises $37K Bottom’s dinner spread this year also included leg of lamb, Brussels sprouts, Jambalaya and red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting.
  • WASHINGTON -- Georgia’s delegation broke along party lines, as expected, in voting to impeach President Donald Trump. All five Democrats sided with their party members in signing off on two charges: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Meanwhile, every Republican member of Congress including the nine from Georgia voted “no.” Democrats held onto their majority with few defections, causing Trump to become the third U.S. president to be impeached. U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath said afterward that she took no joy in supporting charges against Trump. She said members of the House can now refocus on policy after rebuking the president for what she believes were violations of his oath of office. “God must truly be grieved by what is happening here, and our constituents deserve better,” McBath, who lives in Marietta, said. “I pray that we will be healed -- our land will be healed -- at some point.” Trump’s impeachment now sets up a January trial in the Senate, where Republicans who control that Chamber are unlikely to convict him of charges. That includes Georgia’s Kelly Loeffler, who will be sworn in after the new year and said she does not support impeachment. The House spent most of Wednesday in debate on impeachment, including comments by U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk that caught lots of attention on social media. He compared Trump to Jesus Christ and impeachment to crucifixion. “During that sham trial, Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than the Democrats have afforded the president in this process,” the Republican from Cassville said. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins managed the flow of Republicans speaking during their allotted three hours for debate, which gave him numerous opportunities to tangle with Democrats. One of those instances came after comments by U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson of Lithonia, who said without impeachment Trump could be empowered to undermine elections in 2020.  “I urge you to come down to Georgia, find a black man or woman of a certain age and they’ll tell you the danger is real,” he said. “All they’ll tell you of brave Americans -- patriots -- willing to risk far more than a political career who marched and struggled and sometimes died so that we could have fair and free elections.” Collins, who lives in Gainesville, responded that he was glad Johnson mentioned elections in Georgia where voter turnout among minorities has increased in recent years.  Johnson didn’t like that characterization and yelled out that he wanted time to respond, but Collins wouldn’t allow it. U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, a Republican from West Point, accused Democrats of trying to overturn the outcome of the 2016 election by attempting to remove Trump from office. “How dare you, the liberal elites, the condescending bureaucrats, and every other kind of swamp critter in this god-forsaken place, tell the American public who the president should be?' Ferguson said in debate. “That's the job of the American voter, not yours. This whole flipping goat-rodeo is a sham and a shame, and it will not be forgotten.' How Georgia House members voted: “Yes” on both impeachment charges (all Democrats) Rep. Sanford Bishop Rep. Hank Johnson Rep. John Lewis Rep. Lucy McBath Rep. David Scott “No” on both impeachment charges (all Republicans) Rep. Rick Allen Rep. Buddy Carter Rep. Doug Collins Rep. Drew Ferguson Rep. Tom Graves Rep. Jody Hice Rep. Barry Loudermilk Rep. Austin Scott Rep. Rob Woodall