IF A GOVERNMENT wants to rile up citizens, all it has to do is talk about putting a landfill or an airport in their backyard. Both issues breed large amounts of controversy and tend to shape opponents into strong political coalitions.
But if you want to add fuel to that controversy, mix in a suspicion that local government officials stand to personally profit from the deal. Such suspicions taint the debate and in the end, always damage the public officials involved. Such is the case today in Barrow County where an expansion of the Northeast Georgia Regional Airport has created a conflagration of controversy. That action has come under fire not only over potential aesthetic and environmental issues, but also because there is widespread perception that some leading county officials and their friends are doing insider real estate deals in a move to profit from decisions about the airport. It’s not clear exactly what’s behind the recent intense focus by Barrow County leaders on the airport. There’s a street rumor that Jet Blue is interested in the airport as a regional airport for its future growth. The company, however, denies that it has any interest in the Barrow County site. Whatever the cause, Barrow officials have been putting a lot of time and effort recently into expanding its airport. The name was changed in late 2005 to its “regional” name; the county purchased 250 acres in mid-2007 for expansion; and the county condemned 16 acres in September for expansion plans. While some of that may be just the result of a natural growth of the facility, rumors have been flying around the county that “insiders” close to the efforts are buying land near the airport, suggesting that a hidden, bigger deal is driving this issue. Much of that speculation about insider dealings revolves around Barrow BOC chairman Doug Garrison, who has business ties to the real estate and development community. Garrison is, in fact, still listed as a sales agent for a local real estate firm. That’s a bad idea. Public officials cannot serve two masters — the public and their private real estate interests. The co-mingling of the two always leads to problems and suspicion. If a public official is interested in real estate, he should stay out of public office and do real estate. If he is interested in serving the public, he should distance himself from the real estate game to make sure the public’s interest comes first. Until Barrow leaders remove this real estate cloud from the airport debate, they will never be able to have a serious discussion with citizens about the airport’s future. --Editorial, The Braselton News, Feb. 6, 2008