Meet MARTA’s new lobbyists (the ones Jill Chambers won’t talk to)
New lobbyists soon will help MARTA look for the state’s help in closing a projected $130 million budget deficit, but they won’t be talking to the transit agency’s chief legislative overseer. That’s because Rep. Jill Chambers refuses to meet with them.
MARTA officials seem OK with that. They’re after bigger game.
Williams Consulting Group, run by attorney Ellen Williams Reynolds, won a $160,000-a-year lobbying contract last week after MARTA judged the firm’s proposal to be the best of 10 submitted. What set Williams apart, records show, was its staff’s access to Republican leadership in the Georgia House and Senate.
Scoring sheets, filled out by MARTA officials to evaluate Williams’ pitch, emphasize that strength:
- “Access/Access/Access — both sides of leadership issue! Top down is the approach for now (6-9 months)”
- “Lobbying approach included real specific tactics and activities to strategic position MARTA prior to the General Assembly with leadership and rural legislators. A strong bi-partisan approach to cover all aspects of the General Assembly including plan for Governor.”
- “Access to Majority Leadership is undeniable.”
- “The team has strong experience w/ key members of leadership”
The second-ranked bidders, Clifton Morgan & Hunter, did not offer the same comfort level, the scoring sheets show:
- “Level of access to ‘leadership’ is questionable”
- “Not clear on the level of … direct access to members of General Assembly, especially Republican leadership in the House. MARTA has to be a part of the conversations and at table w/ leadership.”
- “The weakness could be that the team didn’t emphasize how MARTA would gain access to top levels of leadership.”
The selection of Williams, approved on a 10-3 vote, is right in line with recent comments by MARTA board members who want to circumvent Chambers, chairman of the MARTA Oversight Committee. Many board members distrust the DeKalb County Republican, a frequent critic of MARTA spending who threatened recently to try to eliminate the seat of any member who voted to hire an outside lobbyist, and would rather reach out to rural and higher-ranking legislators to whom they have not historically had access.
“Part of the thinking is that we develop relationships above her,” Michael Walls said at a work session called last week to discuss the selection of a lobbyist.
“Well, it’s above and around,” added another member, state Revenue Commissioner Bart Graham.
The Williams Group’s written proposal offered these avenues of access to top Republicans at the Capitol:
- Ellen Williams, the company’s president, noted her appointments to various state advisory panels by House Speaker Glenn Richardson and Gov. Sonny perdue.
- Linda Hamrick, who recently joined the firm after three years away from lobbying, is a former executive director of the Georgia Republican Party. She also worked as state director for Century Strategies, the lobbying firm founded by Ralph Reed, the man who came to prominence in the 1990s as head of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition.
- Thomas Walker, a veteran of construction project management who’s married to state Human Resources Commissioner B.J. Walker.
- Bernard Reynolds, Williams’ husband, who serves as Gov. Sonny Perdue’s appointee to state boards on the homeless
Between them, the new lobbyists’ references included: Richardson, Perdue, House Appropriations chair Ben Harbin, Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, Senate President pro tem Tommie Williams, Senate transportation chair Jeff Mullis and Sens. David Shafer and Chip Pearson.
The lobbyists’ full proposal makes for interesting reading, particularly pages 4-8, which summarize their assessment of MARTA’s past legislative failures and its, shall we say, opportunities. Williams also notes that the proposal would be subject to disclosure under the Georgia Open Records Act, so they saved the good stuff so they could cover it privately in an oral presentation.