Early this week, I was as excited as a kid on his way to recess. Similar to the most “subject” for most students, the most enjoyable part of my day was receiving a call from Fulton County Commissioner Emma Darnell called to say she was introducing “pay-to-play” reform at the next commission meeting. For those unfamiliar with the term, it refers to the perception that in order to get awarded a government contract, you must pay to play by donating to the campaigns of the elected officials who award the contract.
O.K., so maybe you think my excitement threshold is low. As head of a government watchdog group, in a state where most politicians run from ethics reform like it is a much feared math quiz, an elected official taking such a bold step is exciting. This was an opportunity for Fulton County to be a national leader on this type of reform, as many local governments have not initiated nor enacted a reform effort such as this – so, let the recess bell ring!
But, nothing ruins a good day on the playground like a schoolyard bully. You remember him, the one that comes along and calls what you are doing “stupid.” Unfortunately, that is what happened to Commissioner Darnell and her idea, which by the way, has been enacted by nine states in an effort to curb cronyism, preferential treatment and institutionalized bribery at the state and local level.
When Commissioner Tom Lowe caught wind of Darnell’s proposal, he accused her of “just trying to make T.V. time”. Doesn’t an issue that sits well with voters and is only unpopular with politicians who put the interests of their campaign coffers over that of reform efforts deserve some air time? No matter what you think of the person proposing it?
But that wasn’t the worst of the childlike bullying. When Commissioner Darnell introduced the resolution yesterday, which was defeated 4-2, Commissioner Lowe called the idea “stupid and bad for business”. Then, like a misbehaving student he wanted to expel, Commissioner Lowe led the charge to a 4-2 vote in favor of never allowing the idea to be brought up again. Such a vote is just silly, and not legally binding, but does show how four members of the commission appear to be way out of touch with the best interests of voters.
More importantly, how can such a reform effort be “bad for business”? As described in Dr. Kerwin Swint’s paper “Contracting at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport: The Need for Pay-to-Play Reform in Atlanta”, Federal District Judge Charles Pannell Jr. described a decades-long pattern by the City of Atlanta (which is in Fulton County) to shut out outsiders from winning contracts at the airport. The judge stated there was an “evil” motive on the part of the Atlanta officials in their three decades of cronyism. That can’t be good for business.
Also, in a meeting with members of Common Cause Georgia’s board, former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin told the group that 70% of her campaign contributions came from businesses and individuals who submitted bids for government contracts. Again, 70% – if that is not an example of institutionalized bribery, what is?
Further, if pay-to-play is “bad for business,” why have nine states enacted the reform efforts to clean up the bad business that gave black eyes to cities like Chicago, Newark, New York, Detroit, Los Angeles and Miami?
Pay to play reform has also withstood court challenges, which proves it’s not only a good way to clean up corruption, but a legal one as well.
Commissioner Lowe’s opinion of the concept is an example of a systematic problem in our political system – campaign contributors become more persuasive than voters, so politicians act in their best interests, not with ours. Individuals and companies wishing to do business with a government should not be allowed to influence a bidding process with campaign contributions. Surely only politicians wanting easy campaign contributions (and perhaps the lawyers they hire) disagree with this idea.
In the schoolyard, the bully will wise up through continued education and the help of his teachers. However, when the schoolyard is the Fulton County Government Center, we need citizens to let elected officials know that pay to play reform is not “stupid,” but something that would work for Fulton County citizens, not the campaign coffers of Fulton County Commissioners.
Learn more about pay to play reform by visiting Common Cause Georgia’s website.