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Nagging questions, persistent cynicism

Governments of all levels—federal, state and local—are the object of much public cynicism and doubt these days.

While sometimes that cynicism is unfounded and occurs just because it’s the popular stance, the actions of the Decatur County Board of Commissioners this week warrant questioning, doubt and skepticism.

Less than 30 days ago, the commission voted to extend County Administrator Tom Patton’s contract by one year. All the while, an attorney, Jay Powell from Camilla, was in town investigating allegations against Patton and his administration. Kudos to the commission for being proactive in getting to the bottom of what proved to be unsubstantiated and unfounded allegations.

But, that is where the praise ends and the questions begin.

The commissioners decided to meet behind closed doors to hear the findings of Powell’s investigation. They also decided to receive the findings verbally, rather than in written form.

According to the Georgia Open Meetings Law, a governmental body must conduct business and hold discussions in plain view of citizens, any citizen. However, there are exceptions to this statute in certain situations. Locally, the most popular, and most abused, exception cited when a group votes to meet behind closed doors is the “personnel” exclusion. This is the case with the commission’s closed-door meeting last Tuesday.

Here is what the law, O.C.G.A. § 50-14-3.6, lists as an excluded proceeding of the Open Meeting Law, “Meetings when discussing or deliberating upon the appointment, employment, compensation, hiring, disciplinary action or dismissal, or periodic evaluation or rating of a public officer or employee, but not when receiving evidence or hearing argument on charges filed to determine disciplinary action or dismissal of a public officer or employee.”

After the closed door meeting and hearing the report from Powell, board chairman, Butch Mosely indicated that no disciplinary action would be taken against Patton because the allegations proved to be unfounded. Simple logic would indicate that the commissioners were behind closed doors “receiving evidence or hearing argument of charges filed to determine disciplinary action.” This meeting clearly did not “pass the muster” as an excluded proceeding and is a violation of the Open Meetings Law.

Additionally, it is apparent that the board chose to receive the report verbally, rather than in written form, to skirt around the report becoming public record. Since the meeting was behind closed doors, with no recorded minutes, and no written report for reference, there is no permanent record that the investigation ever occurred. The invoice from Powell that must be paid with taxpayer money is the only reminder.

Another nagging question remains from this whole sad scenario—what were the allegations and from where did they originate?

It appears that a frequent visitor of and speaker at the Board of Commissioners’ meetings is the aggregator and presenter of the allegations. Terry Ellis has taken a keen interest in the employment of Patton and seems to have chosen a path to discredit Patton at every turn. While Ellis’ motivation and catalyst for this particular path is unknown, I hope this latest episode that caused taxpayer money to be wasted causes each of the commissioners to consider the source before setting off on another escapade.

Or at least conduct themselves in a legal way and in plain view of their constituents. Until then, the cynicism and doubt will persist.