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Some still skeptical after new land policy

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

LAWRENCEVILLE -- A new land purchase policy may not restore residents' trust in leaders, but officials say it should keep the process scrupulous.

For some residents, a special grand jury's assessment of county leaders' actions in land purchases that resulted in millions in overpayments was the final straw after more than a year of turmoil.

The report -- which resulted in the now-invalidated indictment of a commissioner and resignation of the county chairman -- said commissioners claimed to be ill-informed and staff members shrugged off responsibility.

This week, nine months after the report, commissioners took the grand jury's advice with its new policy to bring a more business-like approach to the practice.

"It's not just silencing critics. The more important thing is this is the right way to do business," said Charlotte Nash, who was elected chairwoman to replace Charles Bannister, after he resigned to avoid a perjury charge. "The most important thing is to make sure we are doing the right thing internally."

District Attorney Danny Porter said he had not read the new policy and declined comment, but Sabrina Smith, a Suwanee woman who created Citizens for Responsible Government as a watchdog organization, said the move was a positive.

"I think it's a step in the right direction," Smith said. "But as with any policy ... it always goes back to the honesty of the people involved in it."

With a stipulation that land purchases could only be made if the use has already been identified in a master plan -- although exceptions are allowed -- and an outline as to how potential purchases come before the board, Nash said the new policy adds a more professional edge to the beginning of the process.

It addresses one of the major tenets grand jurors described in suggestions outlined in presentments.

"... We found a process that is ruled more by custom and the whims of individual commissioners than it is by sound business decisions and economic considerations. The Grand Jury believes that the entire land acquisition process should be restructured to increase efficiency and, most importantly, accountability," the report issued in October said.

"First and foremost the acquisition should be based upon a philosophy of obtaining best value for the taxpayer's dollar."

The policy stipulates that land purchases can not be used to settle zoning lawsuits, and gives a lengthy list of information staffers must gather about the parcel, including the owner. As the special grand jury stipulated, any officers and shareholders in a limited liability corporation will be identified.

The detailed report, Nash said, gives specific roles to both commissioners and staff members so no one can shift the blame.

One of the top suggestions from the grand jury -- to do away the practice of district courtesy -- was hard to annotate in the policy, Nash said, but the detailed report and descriptions of updates to commissioners should describe the importance of the decision to each individual.

"Decisions to purchase land are important to all citizens and should transcend all notions of district courtesy," the report said, explaining the practice of deferring decisions to the commissioner who represents the area in question. "No single commissioner should have the power to singehandedly delay consideration of a purchase for political or other reasons."

Smith said the policy may not put politicians back in the people's good graces.

"I think people are extremely suspicious after what happened, and I think it's going to take a long time to restore people's confidence," Smith said, adding that she felt less comfortable about the Gwinnett County Public Schools' controversial land buys. The system released the results of an independent investigation last week that said some policies were violated but that actions were not illegal or unethical.

Smith said she would trust Porter's opinion more, but Porter again declined to comment.

"Even if it was not illegal or unethical, I think it wasn't in the best interest of taxpayers," Smith said.

School board members have said they plan to revise their land purchase procedures, and the report gave suggestions for a new policy.

While commissioners said they don't have plans in the near future to purchase land, Smith said the public has also been distrustful because some officials -- even up to the federal government -- have continued to spend money despite an economy that has created big deficits.

Nash said she knows there is still a long road ahead before residents have faith in their leaders, but she hopes the new policy will create an atmosphere where wrongdoing is less likely.