Augusta Commission members and city employees might have an easier time doing business with the city under a proposed revision to its conflict of interest policy.
The change, drafted by General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie at the request of Commissioner Grady Smith, would lift a ban on commissioners and employees benefiting financially as subcontractors in city contracts, so long as the procurement director is notified of the relationship and the official avoids influencing the selection of the prime contractor.
The 13-year-old policy forbids elected officials or employees from participating, directly or indirectly, in any procurement contract when the individual or immediate family has a substantial interest or financial interest. The ethics code also forbids the appearance of a conflict.
MacKenzie said he developed the “narrow exception” at Smith's request but left any decision to adopt it to the commission.
The issue arose last year when Smith said his company, Smith Brothers Mechanical, was asked by a sheriff’s employee to bid on plumbing work at a new substation in south Augusta. Smith, who was off work having open heart surgery, said his employee responded with a bid as his firm has done many times, including for work done at public schools.
After the bid became public, Smith withdrew it, but he wanted to push the issue after the bid went to a business that charged $15,000 more and took weeks longer to complete the job, he said.
“Look who was the loser on that deal. The taxpayers paid it,” Smith said.
Smith said his company falls in with others that are subcontracted and paid by the general or prime contractor, not the city.
William Perry, the head of the Georgia government watchdog group Common Cause, was surprised Augusta would consider excluding subcontracts for readily available services, as other governments tighten their conflict of interest rules.
“You’re still benefiting personally from a decision made by the government, and that creates a conflict of interest,” he said. Officials are faced with the choice “either to be a public official or a contractor, but not both.”
Commissioner Marion Williams cited the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s look into his possible conflict of interest in a racetrack deal near property owned by his son-in-law. No charges were filed.
“You have an advantage” as a commissioner, Williams said. “That's why the rule was put in place,”
Commissioner Bill Fennoy, who still works part-time for the health department, agreed with Williams.
“It's not fair to the contractors if they have to compete against elected officials and city employees for contracts,” he said.
Contractors are required to disclose who they hire as subcontractors, but contract documents don't always include the names. This was the case in a subcontract Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle secured to do flooring work at Augusta Regional Airport's new terminal for private aircraft.
Guilfoyle said his firm, Augusta Tile Crafters, bid on the work before he was elected. He said he told commissioners of the bid and has abstained from subsequent votes related to the project. Augusta's aviation commission governs the project, but final contract approval must go before the city commission.
Commissioner Joe Jackson, a locksmith, said he performed on-call work for the sheriff's office and other departments until several years ago, when City Administrator Fred Russell told him it was inappropriate.
Jackson said he'd never seek a direct contract or subcontract for city work. He has since performed the services – unlocking the house of a dead person for the coroner, for instance – on request but sought no payment. He acknowledged doing lock work for city EMS contractor Gold Cross before being elected.
Jackson said it was tough for him to draw the line.
“Do I stop doing my business because I might be a third party to someone's arm's-length transaction?” he asked. “I didn't get in this (commission) position to make a lot of money. I sought this position to save the taxpayers' money.”
Commissioner Mary Davis has benefited from government contracts in the past, by way of husband Scott Davis' business with his father, Roger W. Davis. The landscape architecture firm Davis Design Group developed a master plan for Lake Olmstead and other city park improvement projects.
Almost a year ago, however, Scott Davis took a job with Georgia Regents University, his wife said. She said she was unaware of her father-in-law's current business dealings but if one came before the commission, “I would be out of the room.”
The commission should tread carefully if it amends the policy, she said.
“It needs more discussion and analysis if any change is made,” she said. “The policy needs to be extremely clear on the guidelines and the rules.”
The administrative services committee is expected to vote on the proposal Feb. 25.