County discussed sewage spill, Patton’s job status during closed meeting

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A sewage spill at the Decatur County Industrial Park Wastewater treatment plant that went unreported for a year, but only came to light recently, has caused concern for the Decatur County Board of Commissioners.

The spill reportedly occurred in February 2011 and was unknown to the commission until about three weeks ago, according to Commissioner Dr. David C. “Butch” Mosely. The question remains if the spill was severe enough to meet the requirements for reporting to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. Those requirements call for spills of more than 10,000 gallons to be reported to the EPD.

The discovery led to an internal investigation performed by County Attorney Brown Moseley and a subsequent special called meeting of the commission last Friday.

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Immediately after the meeting was called to order, the commission voted to close the meeting to the public and enter into an executive session to discuss “litigation” and “personnel.” Despite spending four and a half hours behind closed doors, the commission only announced that a delegation would visit the EPD offices in Atlanta, Ga., on Friday, Feb. 24, to report and discuss the spill with EPD officials.

Commission Chairman Dr. Charles Stafford, Attorney Moseley, and wastewater treatment facility engineer Stacy Watkins will represent the county during the visit.

The county is currently under a consent order from the EPD, relating to the release of improper waste material into the Flint River from its Industrial Park wastewater treatment facility. The county entered into that consent order in April 2011, but the investigation into pollution at the wastewater plant began in June 2008. The order required the county to pay a $15,000 fine and take steps to upgrade the treatment plant.

Stafford said the February 2011 spill may have taken place, but it is unclear if it was large enough to require reporting it immediately to the EPD.

“There’s been an allegation of a spill out there, but we don’t believe, based on the findings so far, that this is a problem of major concern,” Stafford said. “Our delegation is going to be meeting with the EPD in regards to that.”
Commissioner Oliver Sellers would not comment specifically on what was discussed, but labeled the issue as a “serious problem.”

“It’s not over yet and this issue will be brought up again,” he said. “It won’t be thrown to the side, like things usually are. This is something that cannot be ignored.”

Commissioner Mosely indicated that the spill could have been as large as 100,000 gallons and “I just want to get to the bottom of what happened and why, so that it doesn’t happen again.”

Commissioner Frank Loeffler echoed Mosely’s thoughts, saying, “Once we knew about the spill, we went about trying to find out what really happened and if it met the reporting requirements of the EPD.”

The commission took no action on the “personnel” item. Sources told The Post-Searchlight that the job status of county administrator Tom Patton was the topic discussed during the closed meeting.

Despite Georgia law prohibiting the commission from “receiving evidence or hearing arguments to determine disciplinary action or dismissal of a public employee in a closed session,” the commission invited four individuals, all separately, into the closed meeting for questioning.

Watkins; Ollie Brown, retired manager of the Decatur County Industrial Park; Mike Miller, supervisor at the wastewater treatment plant; and Donnie Wilkerson, operator at the wastewater treatment facility, were all invited into the closed portion of the meeting.

“At the closed meeting, I tried my best to take care of those responsible for the problem, but I failed,” Sellers said.
When asked if this issue could result in disciplinary action against a county employee or employees, Stafford said, “I can’t say on that. I’m not able to reveal any type of decision or discussion about that.”

However, Commissioner Russell Smith, when asked if the employment status of any county employee was discussed during the closed meeting, said that the issue was discussed.

“Yes, but I can’t go into the particulars,” he said. “One of the problems is that nothing has ever been written down. Tom Patton has a contract that goes to September, but he’s never been set down and given specifics about the job. You need to know the exact specifics of a job, and then if the person is not meeting those requirements, then you can take action. We need to get personalities out of this.”

“I really wish we didn’t have these executive sessions,” Smith said. “The public will interpret that we’re hiding something or doing something wrong, whether that’s real or perceived.”

When reached by telephone, Patton indicated, “I was not present for parts of the executive session, so I really don’t want to comment on parts that I don’t know about. There probably will be some point in the future that I have comments, but I just don’t think right now is the time.”

Managing Editor Justin Schuver and News Writer Brennan Leathers contributed to this story.