In answer to the question posed in the title, a combination of both. The recent Grand Jury indictment of Gwinnett County’s Board of Commissioners (BOC) members Charles Bannister (former Chairman) and Kevin Kenerly revealed a number of disturbing views of the inner workings of the commission, and of the commissioners themselves. In response to the report, Bannister played “Let’s Make a Deal” and did a nice Texas Two-Step to side-step prosecution for criminal actions (by resigning); Kenerly’s ultimate fate will be decided by the court system.
But it is the non-criminal actions detailed by the Grand Jury’s report that I find particularly disturbing. It would appear that for at least the past decade, the Gwinnett County BOC has largely been a mélange of thieves and clowns. Ethical, competent commissioners, unable to fend off a barrage of bozo and bandit attacks, appear to have come and gone rather quickly.
After commending FORMER commissioner Lorraine Greene for her cooperation and knowledgeable testimony, the report states, “By contrast, under oath, every single sitting County Commissioner testified that they had not reviewed any of the readily available documents prior to their testimony. This failure to prepare in even the most basic way for their appearance resulted in a lack of recall about most important facts of each transaction. It is the Grand Jury’s opinion that this failure to prepare for their appearance in any meaningful way is not only an insult to the Grand Jury but is consistent with the way in which decisions are made involving millions of taxpayer dollars.”
The report also singled out Commissioner (and interim Chairwoman) Shirley Lasseter’s lack of understanding of numerous county functions. The report notes, “After observing her demeanor and hearing her testimony the Grand Jury specifically recommends the following:
1. That Commissioner Lasseter develop at least a basic
understanding of the land acquisition process;
2. That Commissioner Lasseter become more engaged in issues
which affect her district and the entire county;
3. That Commissioner Lasseter must understand her role as a
policy maker and decision maker rather than relying on the
county staff to do her work for her.
Commissioners Mike Beaudreau and Bert Nasuti have responded to issues raised by the Grand Jury with statements that essentially blame staff members for being non-responsive, or for supplying incorrect information. There is undoubtedly some truth to those claims, but at some point the Commissioners should have raised questions about information that was obviously erroneous, incomplete or simply not logical.
To be fair, thorough investigation may not have been possible given an environment in which at least two members of the commission were entrenched, and capable of suppressing and repackaging information. It has also been a fact of life on the commission that some members had the horsepower to effect certain decisions despite legitimate objections, thereby negating any effort to make decisions based on facts and ethics. In fact, Bannister freely admitted that he pushed through one land acquisition transaction as payback to Beaudreau for voting against other deals. Quoting from the Grand Jury report, “Chairman Bannister stated that he decided to “take the lead” on this particular purchase because of ‘so many no votes’ coming from Commissioner Mike Beaudreau. He stated that getting this land transaction passed was to get Mr. Beaudreau’s attention. To quote his testimony, ‘It was pure politics’. He testified that this purchase was an object lesson to Commissioner Beaudreau.”
It’s one thing to use the power of a political office to whip an errant associate into line; it’s quite another to use that power to throttle an associate who has acted ethically. As if there was ever any doubt, the Grand Jury’s report makes it patently obvious that Bannister and Kenerly practiced service to self, rather than service to citizens. Commissioners Beaudreau, Nasuti and Lasseter appear to have put citizens first, but their lack of preparedness and inability to thwart the actions of Bannister and Kenerly made them largely ineffective.
It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize, and I’m sure there are mitigating factors that partially exonerate Commissioners who are guilty of nothing more than ignorance and inaction. However, that doesn’t alter the fact that Gwinnett County taxpayers were literally bilked out of millions of dollars. That’s something to keep in mind for the next election cycle.