In a 4-1 vote Tuesday night, with Commissioner Bob Ott against, the Board of Commissioners hired Marietta-based Garrett McNatt Hennessey & Carpenter 360 as part of a budget item from the general fund for consulting services.
In October 2013, commissioners authorized seeking proposals to contract with an outside firm to provide assistance with federal and state legislative, regulatory and funding issues.
Under former Chairman Sam Olens, Cobb employed the lobbying firm Holland and Knight to focus solely on the federal level, according to county spokesman Robert Quigley. He said the firm was paid $120,000 per year until 2011.
Lee said he ended spending taxpayer dollars on a lobbyist at the time because the U.S. Congress was not predictable. But now Lee said it has “become apparent there are more and more issues in the state.”
Five firms were ranked, with Garrett McNatt Hennessey & Carpenter 360 coming in first, McKenna Long & Aldridge, LLP second, Holland & Knight third, Bryan Cave fourth, and a joint partnership of Aronnax Public Strategies, LLC and the Vaquer Firm, LLC fifth.
Garrett McNatt Hennessey & Carpenter 360 is led by Marietta attorney Heath Garrett, former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. (Full disclosure: Garrett’s wife, Lee Garrett, is general manager of the Marietta Daily Journal.)
Lee said Garrett McNatt Hennessey & Carpenter 360 was picked because of the firm’s experience.
“They have an astute awareness of how things work in Washington, as well as local connections,” Lee said. “They have a good pulse on what the community interests are.”
A five-person committee reviewed each of the proposals. On the committee were Faye DiMassimo, who is Cobb’s director of transportation, retired Chief Deputy Sheriff Lynda Coker, James Scott with C.W. Matthews Contracting Company, Robert Ingram of Moore Ingram Johnson and Steele, LLP and Susan Lee, who is the in-house legislative liaison for Gwinnett County.
Gwinnett has a full-time staff member who lobbies on the state level, and the county pays Troutman Sanders Public Affairs Group, LLC $20,000 per quarter and McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP $10,000 per quarter for federal lobbying.
Lee said Gwinnett County shares many of the same legislative concerns and is about the same size as Cobb.
He said the county needs a person who is dedicated to “keeping an ear to the ground” on what is happening in the Georgia General Assembly as it relates to specific Cobb needs, rather than have the commission handle lobbying internally.
“I felt I could get more bang for my buck going outside,” Lee said.
Many of the counties in metro Atlanta also pay outside firms to lobby on their behalf, but most have dropped the amount paid to lobbyists and focus on the federal level.
According to opensecrets.org — a website run by The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group — DeKalb County has spent $20,000 so far this year on the lobbying firm Smith, Dawson & Andrews. There was no amount listed in 2013 and the largest recent lobbying expense was in 2009, allotting a total of $240,000 to three firms, the website showed.
The last lobbying funds reported by Fulton County were from 2012, with $80,000 going to Alcalde & Fay, according to opensecrets.org. That was a drop from 2009, with $190,000 given to Patton Boggs LLP.
The city of Atlanta pays Holland & Knight $100,000 for federal lobbying.
Opposition lobbies against cost
Ott said he could not find a justification to give $168,000 a year to an outside firm to do work he says would be best left to Cobb staff and officials.
The county has still received “quite a few federal grants” without a lobbyist, Ott said.
And for more local and state issues, Ott said legislators would rather talk directly to an employee or with the leadership of Cobb.
“I just don’t think there is a need for it,” Ott said. “It is more important for direct contact between county personnel, leaders and legislators.”
Other critics have suggested using taxpayer money to hire a lobbyist goes against the country’s representative democracy. These opponents say residents are already at a disadvantage when private money is used to gain access for special interest groups.
“I am very much opposed to the Board of Commissioners hiring a lobbying firm, especially the Garrett McNatt Hennessey & Carpenter 360 organization,” said Bill Byrne, a former county chairman who is running against Bob Weatherford for the District 1 Cobb Commissioner seat, which is being vacated by retiring Commissioner Helen Goreham. “This is the firm hired by the Cobb Chamber to market the failed TSPLOST in 2012 and their entire agenda will be to support Chamber business items. … I am sure they will be hired to market the BRT proposal, as well.”
David Welden, who has lived in west Cobb for 35 years and has been a campaign manager for Commissioner Helen Goreham, agreed that Tuesday’s agenda item was linked to the Cobb Chamber, as well as the Cumberland CID.
He said those two organizations will see a great benefit from a county-funded lobbyist, “but I can’t see how it benefits the normal resident or taxpayer of the county,” Welden said.
Lee said Garrett McNatt Hennessey & Carpenter 360 will spend the summer months putting together a plan to execute in the next legislative session. The firm will not only represent the Board of Commissioners, but also the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office and the Cobb’s District Attorney’s office.
There are no metrics of success for the short-term year timeframe, Lee said, but in the long-term the firm will address “where there are issues we should be going after.”
The representatives from the Marietta firm who will be working on the lobbying contract for the county are Mitch Hunter, who is on the board of the Marietta Housing Authority, Heather Hennessey, who served for two years as chief of staff for Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah and is based in Washington, D.C., Chris Carpenter, who was general counsel for Gov. Roy Barnes and chief political strategist in the last campaign, and Chuck Clay, a former state senator and a past chairman of the Georgia Republican Party.
The role of the lobbying firm will not be to build relationships with Cobb’s state delegation, but with representatives from other jurisdictions that hold key committee positions, said Lee.
For instance, Lee said an elected official from a rural Georgia county might push for a new law that would not be good for more metro counties, but if Cobb waits until the issue is on the floor of the General Assembly, it will be too late.
“I am spending a relatively small amount to help manage projects through that will have an effect on us,” he said.
Weatherford, who resigned his seat on the Acworth Board of Aldermen to run for the board of commissioners, said he does support the county hiring an outside lobbyist, but only because it will include efforts on the federal level.
“We need to make sure we get our fair share from the federal level as well,” Weatherford said.
He does not believe in duplicating services, so Weatherford said he would not have supported the agenda item if it focused on only state issues.
Weatherford pointed out that Cobb pays dues to the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia that goes to lobbying at the state level.
“If we are not getting what we need, then the ACCG should step up to the plate,” Weatherford said.
Weatherford also believes any contract should come with metrics to evaluate the results.
“It needs to bring in some money and have a return of investment,” Weatherford said about spending $168,000 on an outside firm.