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New bike paths spur ethics charge against DeKalb board member
By MAGGIE LEE
A top DeKalb economic development official has a conflict of interest because he also heads a group that’s received $8 million in county payments, the county’s ethics board was told Wednesday night.
Each time the PATH Foundation builds a new multi-use trail in DeKalb, it collects a county check. But since the foundation’s CEO, Ed McBrayer, also sits on the board of the DeKalb County Development Authority, a neighborhood group wants the ethics board to rule he has a conflict of interest.
McBrayer “is very clearly receiving a benefit from the PATH Foundation,” Brian Daughdrill, counsel for the north Decatur citizens who lodged the complaint, argued at a hearing before the ethics panel.
“And the PATH Foundation is very clearly receiving money from DeKalb County,” he added, calling for McBrayer’s ouster from the authority’s board.
The county’s code of ethics prohibits county officers or their private organizations from receiving county contracts, Daughdrill said.
But McBrayer’s lawyer, Elizabeth Branch, said those restrictions apply only to for-profit businesses, not non-profits.
“Being a non-profit makes all the difference in the world,” Branch declared.
Under a 1998 agreement with DeKalb, PATH has designed, built and maintained bike and pedestrian trails throughout the county. In return, the county allows use of easements and rights-of way. DeKalb also pays PATH a portion of construction costs – two-thirds of costs, for example, on a trail near Emory University.
The verdict may rest on the nature of those checks. Branch explained that PATH finishes work up front and the county reimburses a portion, so DeKalb’s money actually goes to reimburse construction and not to pay anyone’s salary.
But, contends Daughdrill, all of PATH’s income goes in one pot because it has no designated or restricted accounts. Thus, he says, DeKalb money does indeed pay part of McBrayer’s salary .
DeKalb has paid PATH $8 million since 2004 on at least 13 projects. Tax records show PATH paid McBrayer $171,980 in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2009.
McBrayer has served on the Development Authority’s board since 2005 and as its treasurer for two years. He and economic development chair Judy Turner both testified that PATH business never appears in front of their board, which handles much bigger projects such as issuing multimillion-dollar revenue bonds.
If the Board of Ethics finds a conflict of interest, it may reprimand McBrayer, suspend him ir remove him from his board position. A ruling is expected at the ethics panel’s Sept. 15 meeting.
The Three Forks Heritage Alliance, a group of north Decatur neighbors who have been in a legal tangle with PATH since 2008, brought the complaint.
They sued PATH for building a trail behind their homes without a permit to disturb a stream bank — and doing it under an improper no-bid contract. All county contracts over $100,000 are supposed to go through competitive bidding, but the $1.6 million trail between Mason Mill and Medlock parks did not. A DeKalb Superior Court judge eventually agreed with Three Forks on both points, but by then the trail was nearly done.
An out-of-court settlement ordered PATH to pay Three Forks’ legal bills and $50,000 for reforestation.
McBrayer alleged that the ethics complaint was “just another attempt to get back at me for building a path in the neighborhood.”
Under a new 2009 agreement, PATH will only act as a designer, project manager and maintenance staff for trails in the county. DeKalb will put construction works out to competitive bid.
PATH will still receive checks but only for “extraordinary maintenance” that the county chooses to pay, Branch said.
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