The Great Jekyll Island Giveaway

by Leon Galis
Athens, GA
February 17, 2009

Last spring, Governor Perdue’s office sent me a letter saying that the Jekyll Island State Park Authority would “proceed in complete transparency” and “comply with all law” in its revitalization program. Developments since then suggest that those were empty assurances.

Concerning “complete transparency,” the Authority’s conduct, as reported by the Georgia Times-Union and the Jekyll Island Citizens Association, falls stunningly short of that standard. At a five-minute meeting on Monday, last Dec. 1, the Authority approved a contract with Linger Longer Communities granting it the right of first refusal on all island development and management work for the next 25 years. The only public notice of the meeting was on the preceding Friday. No comments or questions from members of the public were permitted at the meeting.

What’s worse, when an Authority member requested
a week’s postponement of the vote on the 70-page contract
to allow for adequate study, his request was denied. Moreover,
Authority Chairman Bob Krueger failed to follow through on
a written commitment to allow state Senator Jeff Chapman,
whose district includes Jekyll Island, to review the contract
“prior to board action.” So much for “complete transparency.”

Is the Authority doing any better with Governor Perdue’s
directive that it “comply with all law” in this effort? The
section of the Georgia Code that enumerates the Authority’s
powers (§ 12-3-235) requires that projects anticipated to
cost over $1,000,000 not be undertaken unless the Authority
has “first evaluated the feasibility of involving private persons or entities…” and “has filed a copy of such evaluation with the Office of Planning and Budget and… the Recreational Overview Committee.”

Clearly, this isn’t a minor technicality that can be satisfied by doodling on the back of an envelope. It’s a substantive requirement meant to produce a document, copies of which must be filed with two other state agencies.

What’s the point of such a requirement? The General Assembly, while preferring private investment over public funding, also recognized that Jekyll Island’s public purpose presents challenges for private enterprises that not every developer will be willing or able to meet. Accordingly, the law requires that the Authority fully apprise potential private partners of those challenges and evaluate the feasibility of engaging them based on their willingness and ability to serve Jekyll Island’s public mission. That’s a reasonable approach to securing the public interest in a cost-effective way.

However, two Authority representatives have admitted in writing that the feasibility study was never done. Both admissions were accompanied by different but equally tortured explanations for why the Authority wasn’t obliged to conduct the study, notwithstanding the plain language of the statute. So much for complying “with all law.”

Why should anybody care about any of this? First, the Authority has forfeited for the next 25 years the opportunity to evaluate development proposals on their merits. No matter how worthy a proposal from some other organization might be, the Authority has determined in advance that Linger Longer will be at the head of the line for it, putting every other developer on the planet at a competitive disadvantage for that extended period. It’s beyond belief that there’s any good public policy reason for the Authority to enter into such a grossly anti-competitive arrangement. Nor is Linger Longer the villain here. Substitute for “Linger Longer Communities” the name of your favorite development company, and the abuse is the same.

Second, in response to an inquiry from Sen. Chapman about the Authority’s defense of their failure to carry out the mandated feasibility study, the state senate’s legislative counsel rejected the Authority’s rationale for ignoring this requirement of the law. It appears, then, that all of the Authority’s contracts with its private development partners aren’t just unfair to Georgians, as many have charged, but were actually illegally awarded. At a minimum, the burden is on the Authority to explain why Georgians would be mistaken in believing that.

Finally, these lapses are hardly the doing of an unaccountable, rogue agency. The Authority is fully accountable to Governor Perdue, who is ultimately responsible for its actions. It should trouble all Georgians that the Governor holds us in such contempt that he thought nothing of making hollow promises to insure that people acting at his direction on a matter of intense public interest did so with “complete transparency” and in compliance “with all law.”

Leon Galis

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Photo by Ned and Carla White
Jekyll Island