LAWRENCEVILLE — A week after a lawsuit was filed over Gwinnett’s payments to the Chamber of Commerce, commissioners are poised to make another payment.
This time, though, the county’s annual Partnership Gwinnett agreement — on Tuesday’s zoning hearing agenda — stipulates that the money must go to a new nonprofit set up for the economic development program, keeping the money from mingling with the chamber’s private donations.
“With the need for jobs and business investment, I believe that it is critical we continue to focus on economic development,” Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said Monday, lending her support to the program credited with bringing 12,000 jobs to the county. “I also believe that combining resources and efforts across community segments strengthens Gwinnett County’s position relative to other communities with which we must compete.”
The move, which has been in the works for months, comes a week after government watchdog Sabrina Smith of Citizens for Responsible Government filed a lawsuit seeking records from the county and chamber over the payments, totalling $3 million in the past six years. Attorney Chris McClurg said the filing is a precursor to a suit that will name commissioners, school board members and chamber President Jim Maran personally, seeking them to reimburse the money to county coffers.
(The county school system has paid for two economic development positions at a cost of $150,000 annually for the past several years.)
While Nash declined to comment on the litigation, she said the change should allow for more transparency to the public.
“The agreement provides that a separate non-profit entity for the public funds must be operational early in 2013. This guarantees that the new entity will be subject to both Open Meetings law and Open Records law, which creates transparency related to public funds as I think is absolutely appropriate,” she said. “For 2012, we have included a provision that the independent auditor responsible for auditing the chamber’s financial records and statements will perform agreed upon procedures to verify the use of the funds paid by the county for Partnership Gwinnett in 2012.”
McClurg said Monday the separation of the dollars may solve the issue of the co-mingling of public funds with the chamber’s private dollars, which were used this year to pay for campaigns for a regional transportation sales tax and against a charter school amendment. It would also clarify the public’s right to documents outlining the spending, he added.
“I think it’s a little too little, a little too late,” he said. “My client thinks Gwinnett citizens want their money back.”
According to county documents, the agreement before commissioners would allow an installment of $375,000 upon delivery of a report outlining the Chamber’s work on the initiative in 2012. A second payment of $125,000 would be made at the end of the year, subject to the completion of several goals including the creation of the separate non-profit.