Legal opinion fuels debate over councilwoman’s hiring at rec authority

A legal opinion sought by a critic of an Atlanta councilmember’s appointment to the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority is adding fuel to a debate over the appropriateness of her dual roles.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, who has slammed Keisha Lance Bottoms’ hiring as the authority’s executive director, said that the legislature’s legal counsel has determined that holding both positions could pose “conflicts of interest” due to the business relationships between the city and authority.

According to an opinion drafted by Jeff Lanier, an attorney with the general assembly’s Office of Legislative Counsel last month, while there is no known law that prohibits Bottoms from holding both positions, she could face instances in which she’d be forced to choose between the two entities’ interests. The authority oversees properties including Turner Field and Philips Arena.

“Simply refusing to vote or disqualifying oneself from participating on issues involving the authority before the city council may not entirely correct the problem since doing so is, in essence, choosing one set of duties over another,” Lanier wrote to Fort last month.

Though the opinion has no legal bearing on her hiring, Fort is now calling on her to choose between her two publicly-funded positions. She is paid $60,000 annually for her part-time work as a councilmember. She will be paid $135,000 in her role at the authority.

“It’s a conflict of interest, and it’s very obvious,” Fort said, who said it’s likely that the council will face votes regarding the sports facilities that the authority manages.

Bottoms, an attorney who was hired through an unanimous vote by the authority board last month, has maintained that holding both positions poses no conflict.

The authority was created by the state and operates independently of the city and county. Still, Bottoms first sought the advice of Atlanta’s ethics officer, and said Tuesday that the city’s law department and authority counsel also cleared her hiring.

She rejected Lanier’s opinion that a recusal wasn’t enough to cure a potential conflict of interest, noting she won’t have a vote as the authority’s executive director.

“My job is to help oversee day-to-day operations of the authority. And to the extent there is a conflict [on council], there is a provision in the city code that allows me to recuse myself. We do it all the time…that is not unusual,” she said.

Fort revealed the opinion just days after Fulton County Chairman John Eaves asked Attorney General Sam Olens to investigate whether Bottoms’ hiring constitutes an ethical violation.

Eaves has questioned the appropriateness of Bottoms’ dual role, said the move lacked transparency and called it a “power play” by Mayor Kasim Reed as the mayor seeks to control negotiations over the sale of Turner Field.

Reed controls six seats on the authority’s board. The other three are appointed by Fulton County.

The mayor and chairman of the authority board have also maintained that Bottoms’ hiring was legal and appropriate.

“I am confident that she will be able to continue her service with the Atlanta City Council and serve as executive director of the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority with integrity,” Reed said in a statement.

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