Brothers’ work relationship causes concern in Houston

WARNER ROBINS — As executive director of the Warner Robins Redevelopment Agency, Gary Lee oversees efforts to clean up the city’s eyesores, looking to tear down, renovate or reshape areas of the city as he sees fit.

Whenever he’s ready to push forward with a project, he first must seek approval from his bosses: a group of seven who make up the city’s redevelopment agency board.

Among his bosses is younger brother Daron, elected to a four-year term on the board through his position as the city councilman for Warner Robins’ 5th District. Daron Lee was sworn in Jan. 4. Gary Lee has worked for the city since late 2007, when the RDA was established.

The city’s anti-nepotism policy states that no relative of a department head, elected official or member of a board created by the mayor and council is allowed to work for the city in any department. If it happens because of an election, as in the case of Daron and Gary Lee, or appointment by mayor and council, the ordinance states one should be transferred so as to not be under the purview of the other.

City Attorney Jim Elliott said technically the brothers are able to work together, as long as they follow the rules of the anti-nepotism ordinance.

It’s not totally clear that they, in fact, have. Experts suggest the Lees’ working relationship puts city projects at risk through potentially biased decision-making.

“While that relationship in those jobs may technically be outside of the letter of the law, the concern on the part of the citizens, is the appearance of conflict is just as damaging on public confidence ... given the range of authority (Daron Lee) has,” said Bill Bozarth, executive director for Common Cause of Georgia, a nonprofit political watchdog group.

Section 18-3 (h) of the city’s anti-nepotism ordinance reads:

“Subsequent elections or appointments. Employees who are already related at the time of the adoption of this section; or who would be in violation of this section upon the election or appointment of a relative to an elected or appointed supervisory position; or who became related subsequent to their employment on account of the marriage or adoption of some other person; may continue their employment subject to the following conditions:

“(1) Elected officials may not participate in or vote upon any specific individual personnel actions directly involving a relative. (2) Department directors and supervisors shall transfer any relative (other than those already employed on the effective date of this section) to a different division or section so as to avoid any direct supervision and shall not participate in any personnel actions involving a relative.”

Daron Lee, as a member of the council, has been on the board of the city’s redevelopment agency since the beginning of the year. The redevelopment agency board comprises the mayor and the six sitting City Council members.

He has voted on RDA projects including the Georgia-Robins Aerospace Maintenance Partnership, which intends to bring hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars to the Warner Robins economy. Elliott said Daron Lee’s participation on the RDA board is well within his rights.

Daron Lee was also present for a closed meeting on a personnel matter involving his brother in May. Officials have suggested during open session that the meeting was to discuss the possibility of terminating Gary Lee’s employment with the city.

An agreement in place is supposed to ensure Daron Lee does not participate in personnel matters regarding his brother, Elliott said.

No one would speak about the closed session last week.

Mayor Chuck Shaheen declined to comment on the situation when reached by phone.

Elliott said Gary Lee is the sole employee of the RDA, which is, as set up in the city budget, apart from the city itself.

The matter gets confusing, he said, because mayor and council sit on the board of the RDA.

“But the RDA does not specifically have an anti-nepotism law,” Elliott said.

But the city does. And it counts Gary Lee as an appointed employee to an organization created by the mayor and council.

“A situation where a public official reports directly to his brother is not a good idea,” said Patricia Jeanne Howze of Century Corporate Counsel, who has dealt with employment law issues for 30 years.

“In essence, the city has really lost that vote because, chances are, the city council member/board member is always going to vote with his brother. If he turns out to be the tie-breaker (in a vote), the perception will be that he will vote to support his brother.”

Gary Lee said he and his brother have addressed the codes with Elliott.

“As far as we’re concerned, Jim Elliott said he can define that as clear as he can,” Gary Lee said. “He’s talked to us about that, and we didn’t find any violation. (Elliott) is saying it isn’t an issue. And he’s the one who addresses the laws.”

A message left for Daron Lee was not returned.

Still, Howze said, the brothers’ relationship, or the mayor and council serving as the RDA board, could cause problems for the city.

“They are so closely linked,” she said of both boards sharing members. “This is an agency that was created by the mayor and city council. Even if it’s not bias, it causes the appearance of bias.

“His brother is approving his budgets and projects? There’s just so much opportunity there for malfeasance.”

To contact writer Marlon A. Walker, call 256-9685.