North Georgia rep picks up SSI incorporation

By Pamela Permar-Shierling - The Islander

Rep. Tom TaylorRep. Tom Taylor (R-79), who represents Dunwoody, and parts of Chamblee and Doraville in North DeKalb County has agreed to introduce a bill to incorporate the City of St. Simons Island during the regular 2016 session of the Georgia legislature. Taylor was elected to the legislature in 2010.

The legal notice placed by Taylor ran in The Brunswick News on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. Taylor is picking up sponsorship of the controversial bill despite the objections of the Glynn County delegation.

In a statement issued Feb. 16 local Representative Jeff Jones said, “After a careful and thorough review of the city charter bill prepared by the Citizens for Saint Simons and Sea Island, Inc. (C4SSI/SI/SI), it is abundantly clear that the legislation is so onerous and has so many problems that I have withdrawn my support for the legislation at this time.”

“While I strongly believe the citizens of St. Simons deserve the right of self-determination and a vote on controlling development on the island, this bill is not the answer to that effort.”

“The bill includes statutes and provisions that are over-reaching and create a concentration of almost unlimited power and authority to the Mayor and City Council.”

Island incorporation takes on Atlanta flavor

Island incorporation efforts have revealed an Atlanta influence in recent months. The pattern for this latest effort closely follows one used in the creation of nearly a dozen new cities in the Atlanta area over the last decade.

Many veterans of the Atlanta incorporation wave have also surfaced in this latest effort to turn St. Simons Island into a city.

In addition to Saturday’s announced sponsorship of the charter bill by Metro Atlanta politician, Rep. Taylor, the local corporation formed to lobby for the island incorporation effort is dominated by former Atlanta residents.

Citizens for Saint Simons Island and Sea Island, Inc. (C4SSI/SI/SI) was registered with the State in January 2015 as a domestic non-profit corporation, with Alexander Suto as registered agent. George Ragsdale is listed as President, Cesar Rodriguez as Vice President and Jim Foster as Secretary.

Given the highly unusual move by the proponents to have an outside Atlanta legislator sponsor their bill and Representative Taylor’s willingness to breach State House protocol to do so, The Islander will profile the leaders of this movement both at the local level and in Atlanta in the next few issues.

Several leaders of the Atlanta incorporation movements moved into elected or appointed positions in the new cities they helped to create.

According to lobbyist disclosure reports filed with the state, the corporation C4SSI/SI/SI hired Atlanta-based lobbyist Cynthia Garst to advance its efforts at the State House. Garst is owner of CPS Strategies of Atlanta, a lobbying and public relations firm.

In addition to C4SSI/SI/SI, Garst also lobbies for other groups including Chevron, AIRBNB, and CH2M Hill. CH2M is the contractor for city operations for the cities of Sandy Springs, Milton, and Johns Creek. CH2M is an American engineering company that provides consulting, design, construction, and operations services for corporations, and federal, state, and local governments.

The firm is headquartered in the Denver, Colorado area and consults worldwide.

Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission records indicate that C4SSI/SI/SI has paid more than $10,000 to Garst for lobbying efforts to date.

Her husband, John Garst, is also a lobbyist for CH2M and CPS Strategies and owner of Rosetta Stone Communications LLC in Atlanta. Rosetta Stone is a political consulting firm specializing in polling and campaign services and is a consulting partner of Landmark Communications, Inc., the Alpharetta firm hired by C4SSI/SI/SI to conduct the earlier incorporation poll released in January 2016 that showed support for a vote on Island incorporation.

The players

Representative Tom Taylor, is a DeKalb County resident and representative of Georgia House District 79. Taylor represents the residents of North DeKalb including the City of Dunwoody and portions of Chamblee and Doraville.

"In 2008 Tom was elected to Dunwoody's initial City Council and was instrumental in the successful startup of the new government." ~CICLT

His district is five hours and approximately 320 miles northeast of Glynn County. He is married to Wendi Taylor, founder and CEO of the Global Youth Food Project since 2015.

Mrs. Taylor’s Atlanta-based non-profit leverages her previous experience in the logistics and supply chain field. Her LinkedIn profile states she was a managing consultant with companies such as Lockwood Greene which was acquired by CH2M in 2003. She remained with the firm until January 2007.

Rep. Taylor is intimately familiar with the creation of new cities. He served as a founding member, vice president, and president of Citizens for Dunwoody Inc., a domestic non-profit similar to C4SSI/SI/SI. His involvement in the incorporation effort included leading the political and legislative strategy and serving as president of the political action arm of the corporation, the Dunwoody Action Committee PAC.

After the local incorporation referendum passed, he became one of the City’s first council members in 2008.
The new city’s council outsourced services to JAT Consulting Services of Kennesaw, Georgia. JAT president Jo Ann Tuttle and staff assisted in the start-up of the new city from purchasing to courts and human resources.

According to the company’s website, JAT continues to provide all accounting, revenue collections, budgeting, human resources, and staff support for the city council.

During his term on the Dunwoody City Council, Taylor also successfully lobbied for a bill that, per his House website, “transferred the county-owned parks and other properties within the city limits to Dunwoody, as well as $7 million in bond proceeds for Brook Run, Dunwoody’s largest park.”

After serving a two-year term on the city council, Taylor ran for the Georgia House, where he has served since 2011.

Despite previous conservative credentials, Taylor has an emerging track record of authoring legislation that adds governmental layers, fragments service delivery, and diminishes local control for jurisdictions outside his own.

The St. Simons Island charter bill is not the first time Taylor has reached across delegation lines to influence local affairs. He was the sponsor of a charter bill to incorporate the neighboring DeKalb community of LaVista Hills in 2015 that ultimately failed at the ballot box.

Taylor introduced HB 520 in 2015 to incorporate LaVista Hills. The bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Ed Rynders (R-Albany).

Although he is introducing it late in the session, Taylor is well-positioned and poised to advance his charter bill to incorporate St. Simons and Sea Island. He serves on the House Governmental Affairs Committee chaired by Rep. Rynders that will receive his bill to incorporate St. Simons and Sea Island.

In the 2015 legislative session Taylor authored a resolution (HR4) to amend the state constitution to allow any municipality in Georgia to form its own independent school system. The resolution did not come to a vote.

Relocating to St. Simons Island in July 2015 from Atlanta, George Ragsdale is the president of C4SSI/SI/SI, Inc. He also authored the charter bill that Representative Jeff Jones walked away from after controversial provisions of the bill that recently became public.

Ragsdale is also a seasoned veteran of recent Atlanta area incorporation efforts. He provided leadership in the effort to incorporate the North Fulton County community of Milton.

In an April 2006 interview with the Atlanta Business Chronicle, Ragsdale predicted that “Milton will probably follow in the footsteps of nearby Sandy Springs and turn over some local services to the private sector.”
Ragsdale launched an unsuccessful bid to become mayor of the newly created city, yet was appointed to the Planning Commission.

In 2009, he was a vocal proponent in the drive to divide Fulton County into two counties, creating a new Milton County. By 2012, the City of Milton appointed a panel to review and amend the City’s original charter that had been “put together in a rush.”

Ragsdale’s vision for privatization of city services in Milton reflected the Atlanta pattern for new cities to date.

Shortly after incorporation in 2006, the City of Sandy Springs entered into a five-year contract with CH2M, with JAT Consulting Services as a partner. The new cities of Johns Creek, Milton, and Chattahoochee Hills also became “contract cities” in which private employees perform basic city functions and services.

While efficiency and cost-effectiveness are often cited as advantages of this approach, many question the loss of public accountability and transparency when basic services are outsourced. This public-private relationship has also blurred open records compliance in some communities where private contractors are reluctant to share information on public services.

In 2010, the newspaper Central City News, based in Central City, Louisiana, filed a lawsuit alleging that CH2M “was subject to Louisiana’s Public Records Law, because the company was functioning as the City of Central and performing sovereign acts on behalf of the city,” and violating the law by refusing to comply with requests.

After a lower court denied access to the records, the First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court decision,
remanding the case for a hearing on whether CH2M was considered an “instrumentality” of Central’s government,
thus making it subject to the state’s public records law. In October 2013, the Central City News settled the case, with CH2M agreeing to turn over records.

Ragsdale, the C4SSI/SI/SI president, has not indicated whether the group will explore the privatization of city services should the charter bill and ballot referendum for incorporation of St. Simons and Sea Islands pass.

On Friday, Feb. 26, a request was made to Rep. Taylor’s office for a copy of the bill he intends to introduce for incorporation of St. Simons and Sea Islands. Taylor’s administrative assistant responded that she “didn’t think the bill had been drafted.”

Legislative protocol dictates that Monday, Feb. 29 is the crossover day or the last chance a bill has to move to the Senate before the session ends.

This is Part One of what will be several articles about the incorporation.

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