New Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst made his first big political move before even taking office, playing a key role in the City Council’s surprise killing of the Skyland Center purchase deal on Dec. 23.
Meanwhile, it appears the building may be slipping from the city’s reach to become a new DeKalb County school.
Before Ernst was sworn in as mayor on Jan. 4, the council met in a hastily called session and pulled the plug on a $3.3 million bond issuance for the 2600 Skyland Drive building.
The council reversed its earlier position with a 3-1 re-vote, a dramatic turnaround from its unanimous approval of the deal just eight days earlier. A key factor was Ernst privately telling council members and former Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams that he would vote down the final bond contract when he took office, Williams said.
“I had made some of my feelings known,” Ernst said in a recent interview. “My feelng was we should have a plan for this building…[and] that people thought it was a back-room deal one way or another…It would have brought more distrust.”
Ernst said he was open to purchasing the state-owned office building through a different bond process.
But Williams and others say the DeKalb County School District is moving toward a purchase. DeKalb Schools spokesman Quinn Hudson declined to answer questions in a brief statement indicating a purchase may be in the works.
“Since this is a pending real estate matter, we will not respond to questions until the process is completed,” Hudson said.
The council’s re-vote was triggered by ethics concerns raised by City Attorney Chris Balch about Councilman Joe Gebbia’s service on the board of the Brookhaven Innovation Academy, a potential tenant of the Skyland Drive building if the city’s Development Authority purchased it.
Gebbia resigned from the BIA board to assure there was no appearance of conflict, but the re-vote gave council members a chance to rethink other legal and moral questions, including some raised by Ernst.
Ernst said he was not involved in the question about Gebbia’s BIA service and that Williams asked for his opinion. He spoke with Councilman John Park as well. Ernst’s thoughts were influential. Williams—who cast the deciding vote against the bonds—referred to him in her comments immediately before the decision.
“In my mind, there’s a number of conundrums,” Williams said. “I’ve had enough conversations with our mayor-elect to know if I don’t vote ‘no’ today, he’s going to vote ‘no’ in January.”
A key concern was the bond-issuance and purchasing method. Another was that the city’s intended purchase of the Skyland Center was essentially speculative, with no particular tenant in mind. One option was to make it the city’s first permanent City Hall.
The city’s Development Authority would make the purchase and lease the property. However, a 1983 Georgia Supreme Court case ruled that it is unconstitutional for development authorities to purchase and rent property directly to the municipality. Earle Taylor III, the city’s bond attorney, said that a common way around that prohibition is to get an independent nonprofit organization to serve as the tenant, then sublease to the city or private tenants.
Ernst said he was concerned there was no “clear pathway through the courts” if that move was challenged in a lawsuit. That was influential on city officials. Williams, in an interview after the meeting, said Balch wrote a memo saying the Supreme Court case created a “bright line” that could make the Skyland deal illegal.
Councilwoman Linley Jones cast the only vote to approve the bonds. “This is a good deal,” she said, adding that she is comfortable with the quality of Taylor’s legal advice.
Councilman John Park noted he had expressed concerns during the previous vote “about being left holding the bag on this [bond] debt.” The re-vote gave him more time to think about those concerns.
Gebbia also voted against the deal after questioning the financial details and saying he agreed with Williams’ concerns.