MARTA hires lobbyist for 2010; Chambers accused of trying to force state takeover
UPDATE: Bernard Reynolds, a principal in the new lobbying firm, will have to earn his keep, judging from Chambers’ latest e-mail Wednesday morning (scroll to bottom, please).
MARTA hired a lobbyist Tuesday at $160,000 a year with expenses, moments after a union official accused a Georgia legislator of trying to force a state takeover of the transit agency.
A sharply divided MARTA board, on a 10-3 vote, chose the Atlanta-based Williams Group to help it win some form of financial relief as it faces an $80 million budget deficit. Moments earlier, a motion to wait a few weeks to allow time to talk to state legislators failed on a 7-7 tie.
The agency failed this year to persuade lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 120, which would have lifted a requirement that only 50 percent of its sales tax revenue may be spent on rail and bus operations. (The rest is reserved for capital expenses.)
“If we don’t get something done, a year from now we’re not going to be providing anything you could reasonably call transit service,” board Chairman Michael Walls said.
The board’s decision came after state Rep. Jill Chambers, chairwoman of a MARTA Oversight Committee, threatened to eliminate the seat of any board member who voted to hire the lobbyist. That didn’t sit well with several members who described her threat Tuesday as “outrageous” and “offensive.”
“I’m damn sure not going to be dissuaded because somebody’s going to threaten to take my seat,” Walls said. “She can have my seat if she wants to, but she’s not going to threaten me into making a decision.”
Restructuring the MARTA board and reducing its size has been a goal of Chambers for some time. Tuesday, union chief Benita West charged that the DeKalb lawmaker had tried in this year’s legislative session to use the funding issue to pressure MARTA to make concessions on the size and look of the board.
“The whole intent is for a state takeover of MARTA,” West told the board shortly before the vote. “She was bold enough to lay it out to us. We have the notes, we have the documents.”
Calvin Sims, who has lobbied for the Amalgamated Transit Union local off and on since 1980, said he too was present at the union hall when Chambers discussed her concerns.
“Jill said that she was going to hold that bill, Senate Bill 120, to force MARTA to agree to reduce some of the board members from Fulton and DeKalb counties. She wanted a smaller board,” Sims said in an interview. “I said, ‘Jill, that’s not going to work.’ … Jill said if she held that bill up, they would crack.”
“I think she felt like the board was too large and too cumbersome,” Sims said. “She never said a state takeover, but that’s what it would have amounted to. The taxpayers would have been outvoted.”
Walls said today that Chambers told him she would let MARTA use 70 percent of sales tax money on operations if MARTA would agree to a seven-member board: four representing state agencies and one each from Fulton and DeKalb counties and Atlanta.
Currently, the MARTA board consists of four state officers and 14 appointees of local governments — five from DeKalb, four from Atlanta, three from Fulton, and one each from Clayton and Gwinnett.
Chambers said today she wants to explore several alternatives for restructuring local transit governance. One option might place all bus operations under the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, which currently operates express commuter bus service from outlying counties.
Another option would allow GRTA to run all regional transit, she said: “I said that would be one option. It’s not the only one. It’s debatable.”
Chambers denied that she held up the 2009 funding bill sought by MARTA:
“I don’t think I would ever hold a bill because I don’t have that power. I think they’ve interpreted what I said at a higher level. They think I have a lot more power than I actually do.”
The MARTA board’s Tuesday vote amended the lobbying contract slightly to make it clear it was for one year at $160,000, with options for two one-year renewals at the same price.
The Williams Group will assist two lobbyists on the MARTA staff, particularly in trying to reach lawmakers from outside metro Atlanta.
“Legislators tell us, you gotta get around to everybody, you gotta get to these people in South Georgia,” Walls said. “You gotta have some people that can go out and be good old boys or whatever in the Legislature.”
Chambers sent the MARTA board this e-mail Saturday under the subject: “attention MARTA board members!!!!”
To: MARTA Board members & staff
From: State Rep. Jill Chambers, MARTOC Chairman
The MARTA board is expected to vote to approve the hiring of a contract lobbyist for aprox $400K+.
I hope I have made it clear to the Authority that I feel this is a waste of taxpayers money – MARTA already has two staff lobbyists and the firm of Holland & Knight to represent them in government issues.
The Board Governance Sub-committee of MARTOC will examine the votes for the Ethics changes and the contract lobbyist issue.
Should either of these two issues come before the Board, those members who vote in agreement to these staff proposals may see their Board seats eliminated with any future restructuring of the MARTA Act.
MARTOC is mandated by the State of Georgia to examine the financial workings of the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. MARTOC is a joint committee of the State House and State Senate.
The e-mail drew these responses Monday from board members:
Chairman Michael Walls: “I have no way to say how offensive that is. … She did one of the most outrageous things I can imagine a legislator doing.”
Michael Tyler: “To have her say what she said is beyond outrageous.”
George Glaze: “Jill Chambers says her door is open. Until her mind is open, then I don’t think it’s going to make any difference in what we do.”
Gloria Leonard: “Who knows whether to believe her? She could be lying again.”
UPDATE: Chambers sent the following e-mail to MARTA’s new lobbyist this morning after he asked her out for a bite to eat.
Subject: RE: Meeting (with marta’s newest lobbyist)
Date: Wed, 14 Oct 2009 07:25:56 -0400
Before we meet, you have some homework!
Please get copies of the last three “martoc reports” – not the budget.
Read the reports and then you can come by to explain the incredible increases in non-transportation expenditures.
In our september meeting, the committee requested copies of RFPs and contracts.
As of today, marta has not supplied the requested docs and it has been over a month. Please bring me the requested docs by monday at 4:00.
After you have had the chance to read and compare three martoc reports and the committee has all of our requested materials, I will call a meeting and you can present to the entire committee.
Please read the resolutions giving martoc committee its assignment of periodically examing th spending of the Authority.
It is my policy to meet only with marta staff and board members. If they don’t want to answer questions or provide documents, they cannot use outside lobbyists as a shield.