Gwinnett County commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash is facing allegations that she violated state ethics rules which prohibit county officials from advocating for or against tax referendums ahead of the MARTA referendum in March.
Joe Newton, one of the leaders in the anti-MARTA camp, filed a complaint against Nash with the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. At issue is whether Nash’s actions at public meetings — where she discussed the county’s contract with MARTA as well as the county’s transit plan — constituted her advocating for the referendum’s passage.
The commission is reviewing the complaint to see whether “further prosecution” is warranted.
“One-sided education is not education, but deliberately-slanted government propaganda,” Newton wrote in the complaint. “It is not up to the county government, nor any elected official of a county, to ‘educate’ any voter as it is clear they cannot be trusted to be neutral or unbiased in their ‘education efforts.’”
Voters rejected the MARTA proposal by a 8.6-point margin in the special election held March 19, but the components of the county-drafted Connect Gwinnett Transit Development Plan could come up for a vote again next year or later. The Connect Gwinnett would have been the service plan MARTA rolled out in the county if the referendum had passed.
Nash’s attorney, Bryan Tyson, said the commission chairman was well aware of the limits that exist on how far elected officials can go when talking about upcoming tax referendums. Nash was also deeply involved in negotiations on the MARTA contract that she explained at public meetings including those organized by the county and those hosted by other groups.
Other county officials, including Gwinnett Director of Transportation Alan Chapman, participated in many of the events as well.
“Chairman Nash understood the distinction between educating voters and engaging in advocacy in favor of the transit referendum,” Tyson wrote in a response to Newton’s complaint. “While she worked to ensure that voters had a full understanding of the transit plan and the related agreements, at no time did she urge voters to vote in favor of the transit referendum.”
The county’s transit plan is expected to be submitted to the Atlanta Transit Link Authority this summer for consideration as part of that body’s regional transit plan. Under state legislation which created the authority, Gwinnett could hold its own transportation special purpose location option sales tax referendum to implement the plan as part of Gwinnett County Transit.
But how the build up to another vote plays out in the community could hinge on what the state’s ethics officials do with Newton’s complaint.
Newton claimed grassroots opponents of the MARTA contract were at a disadvantage before the March vote.
“It is patently unfair that I, as a voter, have to fight (and pay money out of my own pocket) for equal time up against someone like County Chair Charlotte Nash as she is able to employ her elected position, time and time again, to cheat voters like me because we neither have the unlimited financial resources a Georgia county government official has when she uses her elected position for advocacy, nor do we have the recognition of ‘authority’ and prominence that any elected official has to the voter,” Newton wrote in his complaint.
Tyson argued, however, that Nash was doing her job as county commission chairwoman by explaining the contract, the transit plan and the particulars of how the vote would be conducted.
“Because Chairman Nash’s educational efforts were appropriate and part of the duties of her office, there is no violation of the statute when those resources were used to carry out her job duties of educating citizens about an issue of major importance to local government,” the attorney said.