Perdue fingerprints are on Jekyll
His office quietly monitored controversial legislation affecting the island authority.
Georgia Times Union
By Brandon Larrabee, The Times-Union
Patrice Hinton Oswalt had something on her mind.
After "many years absence," she and her husband had visited Jekyll Island, Oswalt wrote in an e-mail to Gov. Sonny Perdue. Plans to revitalize the island's sagging tourist infrastructure dismayed her and Oswalt was not convinced that traditional limits on development would protect "Georgia's Jewel."
"Surely there are other options to enhance island revenues without destroying the delicate ecosystem," Oswalt wrote. "Maintaining 65 percent of the island undeveloped while overdeveloping the remaining 35 percent is not a viable answer for the future of Jekyll Island, but rather a way to appease greed."
Her e-mail is among hundreds of pages of documents on Jekyll Island reviewed by the Times-Union under the state's open-records laws.
Contrary to his publicly maintained distance on the debate over Jekyll Island's future, the documents show Perdue's office was sometimes intimately involved in the debate over extending the Jekyll Island Authority's lease in hopes of luring private developers.
The documents also reveal ties between the governor's office and lobbyists for developers interested in Jekyll's potential for profit. Some of those developers are expected to be major players in the island's redevelopment, though Perdue insists he has no favorites.
House Bill 214, which Perdue signed in May, protects the island's ecologically fragile south end and bars the state from selling any Jekyll land. The original bill had none of those safeguards that were proposed by legislators outside Perdue's camp.
While the governor didn't talk about the bill, he assigned key aide Lonice Barrett to keep an eye on it. A former commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, Barrett had just stepped down from overseeing a major administrative overhaul that was arguably one of Perdue's pet projects.
Perdue was intent on looking out for Jekyll's best interests, Barrett said.
Among other things, Barrett described his role as that of a coordinator to "try to keep everybody in the information loop.''
Others, though, see a governor trying to push the agenda of wealthy and politically connected developers who covet Jekyll's natural beauty as a potential playground for the rich.
"This thing was being cooked all along," said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club who was involved in the political battle over the island's future.
Drafts of the authority's plans and memos referencing meetings between authority officials and Perdue stretch back to 2004.
The authority's plans mentioned several possibilities for the island and pushed for a lease extension more than two years before one was offered in the General Assembly. And parts of the south end were targeted for development.
"The site that is currently occupied by the 4H center and the soccer fields offers a substantial opportunity to increase the residential base of Jekyll Island," a draft plan developed by the authority said.
The combined 19 acres could be used for single-family lots, the draft said.
Having learned of the draft documents, Herring said he was relieved that the lease-extension bill thwarted those development plans. "They plainly were going to develop it, and I think they were going to develop it first," he said.
Throughout 2005, meetings took place on a variety of fronts, including on federal legislation removing parts of Jekyll from a list of protected areas on barrier islands where the government refused to underwrite flood insurance. Perdue's office was involved in lobbying for the change.
Parts of the island were later removed, though some land was also added to the protected areas as a swap.
One item, for example, suggests an attempt to time public discussion of the politically touchy subject of Jekyll's future.
In meeting notes dated Sept. 29, 2005, Barrett wrote "blanket on redevel. issues till after re-elect." Barrett concedes the notes were his but says he can't remember their meaning.
"I'm trying to remember whether this was re-election in Georgia or whether, since this was federal legislation, whether there was something on that as well. ... I don't remember the context of that. I don't know why I would have written that down," Barrett said.
Herring said the possibility the note was about federal elections stretches credibility. U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., who represents Jekyll, always easily wins re-election in a strongly Republican district, he said.
Perdue, at the time, faced the possibility of a tough 2006 campaign against either proficient fundraiser Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor or popular Secretary of State Cathy Cox. Taylor won the Democratic primary but lost to Perdue.
"He's talking about the governor's race," Herring said of Barrett. "He's trying to keep the issue out of Mark Taylor's hands."
During internal deliberations on the island's future, the authority raised the possibility of selling all or part of Jekyll.
"Make every effort to sell the existing real estate and commercial operations to private operators in an effort to dissolve the Authority and persuade Glynn County to take over the municipal services and the private sector to operate the commercial activities leaving the remainder as a natural area and state park," a document reads.
Barrett maintains that was never a viable solution. In a packet presented to him by the authority in December, there is a handwritten "X" - indicating disapproval - next to a reference to private ownership.
Selling so much as "1 square foot of Jekyll Island would be absolutely the wrong thing to do,'' he said.
Although it had been discussed, Barrett said his only suggestion was it shouldn't be done.
A check mark appears by "Select Private Sector Master Revitalization Partner," an idea the report backs and that the authority has since adopted.
When it passed HB 214, the General Assembly stripped language allowing the sale of some parts of the island and also blocked development on the south end.
The documents also show Barrett and the governor's office were involved in some legislative mechanics that led to the passage of HB 214 and, in some cases, were apparent contacts for interested developers.
A target of some environmentalists' ire, lobbyist and former Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Tanner, also pops up in the e-mails. Tanner monitored the Jekyll legislation from the onset and later registered as a lobbyist for the politically connected owners of Reynolds Plantation, a resort on Lake Oconee.
Barrett characterized Tanner's involvement as occasional conversations between two people who had known each other for decades. Barrett said he backed away after Tanner registered on April 10 as a lobbyist for Southeast Landco, a Reynolds group company.
James and Harold Reynolds, two officials of Linger Longer, the company that owns the resort, gave a combined $13,400 to Perdue's re-election campaign.
Once that happened, Barrett said he made sure he distanced himself, "for the very reasons that you might suspect."
Herring said the only reason Barrett would say he backed away from Tanner was "a guilty conscience" for working with the lobbyist in the first place.
"There's no reason not to talk to a lobbyist who's registered," Herring said.
There are documents that indicate a willingness by the governor's office to rebuff at least some concerns raised by developers. Former state Sen. Earl Patton e-mailed the governor's chief operating officer, Jim Lientz, raising "DEEP concern" that the length of the lease provided for in one version of the bill might prompt a developer to pull out of a deal.
"I guess we will see if they are bluffing," Lientz wrote to Barrett and Ed Holcombe, Perdue's chief of staff.
And Perdue gave a clear message to the Jekyll Island Authority during a signing ceremony for HB 214 in May, Barrett said.
" 'You need to understand, I have absolutely no preconceived ideas of where we need to go,' " Barrett recalls Perdue saying. " 'You need to hear me loud and clear,' and I'm quoting him almost verbatim, 'I want you to do what's best for Georgia. I want it to stand up to scrutiny. I want you to make a good business deal. I want you to protect Jekyll Island. I want to see Jekyll Island realize its potential.' "
After a wait that made environmentalists and island residents jittery, Perdue signed the bill on the last possible day, extending the leases putting environmental protections in place.
"I think he just simply wanted to be sure that in his mind he was doing the right thing," Barrett said. "And I think he finally got comfortable with the fact that this was a bill he was willing to sign, and I think it was a terrific step he took to sign the legislation and set the stage for Jekyll to, we hope, to be all that it can be."