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Ethics Complaint Filed Regarding Land Swap

By Alison Ross

An ethics complaint alleging conflict of interest has been filed with the DeKalb County Board of Ethics against Zack Williams, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Assistant to the CEO of DeKalb County.

At the center of the complaint is a letter sent from Chief Operating Officer Zachery L. Williams to Penelope McPhee, President, Arthur Blank Family Foundation (Blank Foundation) on November 27, 2018. This letter seeks and recommends approval of a land swap, calling it a “win-win,” between DeKalb County and Blackhall Studios, a private developer. The land being swapped is approximately 55.6 acres of Intrenchment Creek Park greenspace, purchased in part with funds from the Blank Foundation. At issue is whether DeKalb County has the authority to trade park land to a private developer.

Based on public documents related to the sale, the property is subject to a permanent deed restriction that stipulates the proposed trade is legally prohibited. According to the Limited Warranty Deed filed on January 15, 2003 when the property was originally purchased, DeKalb County agreed by acceptance of the conveyance to “dedicate the property to the Park Property Restriction IN PERPETUITY for the benefit of the public pursuant to Georgia Code O.C.G.A. § 44-5-60(c).” Additionally, the letter to the Blank Foundation represents an “official act” in which the County is not only seeking approval but recommending approval to the benefit of Blackhall Studios making the county an active “participant” in this transaction. These actions place the county in the role of de facto broker of the swap on behalf of Blackhall Studios and, as such, constitute a blatant conflict of interest.

Finally, the proposed swap breaks with past practice, setting a dangerous county-wide precedent that could lead to future attempts to swap county park land for private use with numerous public/private conflict of interest implications.

DeKalb County has no legal authority to trade this property and again, according to the Deed, “any member of the general public who utilized the Property, shall have the right to take any action necessary at law or in equity to enforce the Park Property Restriction.” Approving the trade would violate the terms of the deed, making DeKalb County subject to legal action for disregard of the property covenant restriction and Georgia law.

It has also been discovered that a portion of Intrenchment Creek Park has already been traded away in 2007, when DeKalb County gave TND City Crest, LLC (City Crest) nearly nine acres of the park, and with no authority removed the deed restriction as part of the transfer. Under what statute or policy did DeKalb County claim the power to remove the permanent deed restriction on those nine acres, in clear violation of the covenant and Georgia law?  There was no public transparency concerning this trade, nor is it clear whether the Blank Foundation and the Trust for Public Land were informed of or approved this trade. Is it now the county’s claim that the precedent for the current Blackhall swap proposal was set in motion by the 2007 City Crest swap. At a minimum the important questions raised here need to be answered and should be sufficient to #STOPTHESWAP.

From a press release sent on behalf of the South River Forest Coalition, comprised of 15 community groups, environmental organizations, and local businesses.

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