DeKalb commissioner, family receive free YMCA memberships

Channel 2 Action News has learned that DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, her two sons and two of her staff members have received free memberships to a DeKalb County YMCA facility worth more than $25,000 during a period when the commissioner introduced and supported legislation that cemented a deal between the county and the Wade Walker YMCA.
Russ Davis, chief marketing officer for the Metro Atlanta YMCA, told Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Richard Belcher, “The decision (to grant the free or “in-kind” memberships) was made by a previous (YMCA) executive, and in hindsight, it probably shouldn’t have been done.”
Davis says the memberships have been suspended and are under review.
Davis says Sutton and one of her staff members began their free family memberships at the Wade Walker YMCA in 2010, a second staff member in 2011 and the commissioner’s two adult sons in 2012.

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — The facility's website lists the cost of a full-priced family membership as $91 per month, which amounts to$1,092 per year. Channel 2 Action News estimates the total value of the five memberships over the varying time periods at $27,300 retail.

Complicating the arrangement is that Sutton led the 2011 effort to put together a formal relationship between DeKalb County and the Wade Walker YMCA.

Records show she introduced the legislation and voted for it in March 2011, a year after the Metro YMCA says Sutton and at least one of her staff members began receiving their free memberships.

In an interview with Belcher, Sutton didn’t directly address the conflict-of-interest question, but defended the arrangement, calling it “a policy and practice of the Y” to offer complimentary memberships. She added, “It is legal.”
William Perry, of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, disputes Sutton’s appraisal.

"The gifts of free membership given by the YMCA and accepted by Commissioner Barnes-Sutton, her family members and staff are a clear violation of the DeKalb County Ethics Code. Further, because the YMCA benefited from legislation considered and passed by the Commission, I believe the Y violated state law by not registering a local lobbyist and reporting the membership as lobbyist expenditures (or gifts)," Perry emailed in a statement.

Sutton said the facility told her, “We give the commissioners memberships,” so she saw no problem with the practice.
“When I started here, I can tell you unequivocally that other commissioners had free memberships,” she said.
But the Metro YMCA’s Russ Davis emailed that YMCA records show only one other commissioner with a membership, and that commissioner pays for the membership.
Commissioners Jeff Rader, Stan Watson, Kathie Gannon, Mereda Johnson and Nancy Jester all told Channel 2 Action News that they do not have free memberships to the YMCA. Gannon and Johnson said they would not accept memberships, if they were offered.
Jester was more blunt: “Absolutely not. Heavens no. It’s inappropriate."
We were unable to question Commissioner Larry Johnson.
In her interview with Belcher, Commissioner Sutton did not specifically address the Metro YMCA’s assertion that the agency has comped the memberships for two of her staff members and for her sons.
About her sons, Belcher asked, “Do they get free memberships?” 

“I don’t know what they get,” Sutton responded.

Sutton has used the Wade Walker YMCA for activities related to a program she sponsors called Youth Leadership Academy.
Russ Davis, of Metro YMCA, praised the program, but Sutton made no reference to it in her interview about the free memberships for her, her family and her staff.