County needs to quit keeping secrets

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Freedom of information and open government are basic tenets that all of our governmental officials should hold high on any priority list. Beyond all else — personal agendas and vendettas included — informing and serving constituents should be job No. 1.

Unfortunately, those concepts were lost on the Decatur County Board of Commissioners recently. Last Friday, the commissioners convened in a specially-called meeting. Immediately after calling the meeting to order, a motion was made to close the meeting so that Decatur County’s business could be conducted behind closed doors. That meeting lasted four and a half hours.

Now, Georgia law provides very clear instances in which a governmental body is allowed to meet without the public present. This ability is necessary and understandable in some instances. Friday night was not, however, one of those instances.

The motion was made to enter into the closed meeting to discuss “pending litigation” and “personnel.” The litigation relates to a consent order from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, concerning the county’s wastewater treatment facility. This order is currently in effect and details the requirements the county must meet, in order to remain in compliance with the EPD.

In February 2011, there was a spill at the county’s wastewater treatment facility in the Industrial Park. There are questions, that we haven’t been able to get answered, about the size of the spill and why the spill is only now — a year later — coming to light.

In separate interviews with five of the six commissioners, none would fully admit to what actually happened and why. Was the spill accurately reported? What legal exposure does the county have with the EPD because of the spill? Was the spill large enough or serious enough to require its reporting?

We don’t know those answers, because none of the commissioners would fully answer those questions. You, the constituents, deserve to know the answers to each of those questions, because the citizens of Decatur County will be the ones to actually pay the price of any penalty relating to this spill.

We do know that the personnel issue, cited by the county in Friday’s executive session, is related to some commissioners’ desire to fire County Administrator Tom Patton.

Georgia state law states very clearly: “Meetings [are excluded from being open] when discussing or deliberating upon the appointment, employment, compensation, hiring, disciplinary action or dismissal 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.”

During the meeting, four different people, including two current county employees, a retired county employee, and a professional contracted by the county, were invited into the closed meeting for questioning by the commission, concerning the wastewater spill.

The commission was obviously gathering information from these individuals to 1) determine what actually happened over a year ago at the wastewater treatment facility and 2) determine what actions, including dismissal, would be taken against the county administrator because of the spill.

If the county administrator did something wrong, then hold him responsible. But conduct your business in a forthright and legal manner.

Clearly, the Decatur County Board of Commissioners broke the law in the process of gathering information from the four individuals — all of whom have a connection to the wastewater treatment facility — in order to make a personnel decision. That’s serious, but can be corrected.

Keeping secrets from the citizens of Decatur County with “no comment,” and “I can’t talk about that,” reponses is unconscionable.

You deserve answers. And if these commissioners will not respond, maybe the ones who replace them will.