Eugene Walker, the former head of DeKalb County’s Development Authority, said he resigned from his post Aug. 18 because he didn’t want to further distract his colleagues after many residents complained of his dual role as an authority and school board member.
“I felt it was imperative that the [authority] focus on economic development,” said Walker in an interview with The Champion. “Some people on the [authority] have suggested to me that they thought it was a distraction too, and I agreed. … I didn’t want anyone else asking me anything about Sembler.”
Walker was criticized for accepting campaign contributions from St. Petersburg, Fla.,-based company Sembler, which has been seeking to build a 600,000-square-foot development on Peachtree Road near Oglethorpe University. The proposed agreement for the project, known as Town Brookhaven, would grant Sembler special tax breaks – a deal county officials claimed is worth about $52 million over 20 years. Sembler officials said they couldn’t finish their project without the deal.
Walker’s school board campaign received more than $21,000 from Sembler last year, according to state records. The proposed deal between the county and Sembler is on hold until the county settles on a series of guidelines for granting tax breaks to developers.
Walker said because he disclosed the campaign contributions, he did nothing wrong. He will remain in his District 9 school board seat, he said.
“The greatest antidote to any appearance of conflict of interest is transparency, full disclosure,” he said. “I’ve disclosed all of my relations, my philosophy. I will continue to be a strong supporter of economic development.”
Authority members could not be reached for comment.
But while critics claimed Walker was helping to take money away from the students he was elected to represent, Walker said he believed increased development would ultimately serve the school district.
“My vision was that I felt I could be a bridge to more actively bring the school system, the county and the authority together on issues of economic development [in a way] that would enhance all of us,” he said. “I haven’t broken any law. I haven’t violated any rule. … [Critics] are talking about a perception.”
On that point, he’s absolutely correct, said Don Rooks, director of legislative services at the Georgia School Boards Association. Conflicts of interest are not covered in Georgia’s code of law with two obscure exceptions, he said. School board members can’t sell school supplies to the board, and boards cannot do business with a bank in which a board member has an interest of 30 percent or greater, Rooks said.
“Board members are elected, and if they’re doing something that is contrary to the popular will, then that person can certainly be voted off the board. If they commit some egregious act… there’s always the recall option that communities have as well,” he said.
Several bills that would legislate conflicts of interest have not gained traction in the State House, he said.
Walker said he has moved on from the controversy.
“It’s a dead issue with me,” he said.
School board Vice Chair Zepora Roberts declined to comment on Walker’s resignation and the Sembler proposal.
In related news, the county’s economic development department released a draft economic stimulus policy that would better govern how the county doles out tax breaks to developers. Among the guidelines:
• Any project considered for breaks must be worth $100 million or more.
• The county must receive a net benefit when all direct and indirect revenues are compared to property tax reductions to the project.
• Authority members have to observe the cost comparison before they vote on it.
The county is expected to consider the draft this fall.