During the 2018 interim, a 13-member, bipartisan airport study committee discussed the possibility of transferring responsibility of the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to an authority that mirrors the structure of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority and the Georgia Ports Authority.
Since the late 1980s, the airport has been at the center of allegations ranging from bribery to unfair contracting, and most recently, F.B.I. investigations and indictments. Most of these accusations and convictions stem from issues with the procurement process. There have also been charges for unethical behavior resulting from council members taking bribes or lush campaign contributions in exchange for contract awards to those who fill their pockets, instead of those who may be the most capable. Time and time again it has been proven in court that the airport has fallen victim to documented procurement issues and misappropriation of funds over the past four decades, regardless of who was in charge of the administration at the time.
During our committee meetings, we heard from experts, political analysts, lawyers, City of Atlanta Council members, past contract bidders and airport management officials who provided extensive background and knowledge regarding past and current airport administrations. The airport is currently owned by the city with one elected official – the Mayor’s office who represents only four percent of the state’s population – in charge of a multi-billion dollar entity, and that is where the structural problem lies because there is no accountability. Currently, the procurement officer reports directly to the Mayor and not the general manager of the airport. The procurement officer is not only in charge of handling contract bids for the airport, but the entire city.
The current airport management structure’s issues are deep-rooted, institutional problems that would be solved through the creation of a new authority. In order to eradicate the institutional mistakes that allowed for corruption and to implement the recommendations passed unanimously by the study committee, I sponsored Senate Bill 131, the “Georgia Major Airport Authority Act,” which would create a state authority to oversee the operation of the airport, but could dissolve if the General Assembly and the City of Atlanta can come to a joint governance plan by July 1, 2020. The language in SB 131 was recently added to House Bill 447.
Prior to introducing SB 131, the committee members and I met with Mayor Bottoms and city council members several times. While we do commend their efforts to make the necessary changes to avoid problems, that does not guarantee future administrations will be corruption free.
Although the lines of communication have been open between the General Assembly and the city, none of the Senators who represent the City of Atlanta sought to have a serious discussion or meeting about SB 131 prior to it being debated in the Senate. They have since raised an issue that the city owns the airport and they will do anything in their power to keep the current structure in place. Their main argument is not to take the “golden goose” away from the city and its residents. As directed by the Federal Aviation Administration, the city legally cannot receive any financial gain or benefits from airport funding. So the “golden goose” they say they want to protect on behalf of the citizens and city cannot be used to improve roads or schools, it can only be used for projects at the airport. While that is the law, it has been proven that millions of dollars have been utilized for purposes outside of the airport such as paying friends of the administration or covering un-specified legal fees. The “golden goose” is being utilized to fund campaigns and political coffers, not to benefit citizens or the city.
While this is a hard conversation to have, I am hopeful we can all come together to find a solution while sticking to the facts. The airport’s impact on the state’s economy and culture is immeasurable, making the region a hub for business activity. While it is true that Atlanta holds title to the airport, it is an asset that benefits all Georgians and should be treated as a business enterprise, not a political shake down center. As public servants, I believe it is our duty to do all we can to prevent any further embarrassing moments for one of our state’s greatest assets.
Sen. Burt Jones is the Chairman of the Insurance and Labor Committee. He represents the 25th Senate District which includes Baldwin, Butts, Greene, Jasper, Morgan and Putnam counties and portions of Bibb, Jones and Walton counties. He may be reached at 404.656.0082 or via email at email@example.com.