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Posted: March 20, 2012 9:59 p.m.

City to get new probation company

In another unexpected twist, Covington's probation services provider turned down the city's contract extension offer Monday, despite the fact a former employee had asked the council four weeks ago essentially to give the company another chance.

The attorney for Fran Martin, owner of East Georgia Correctional Services, sent the city a letter Monday declining its recent proposal to extend Martin's current contract one additional year.

"We appreciate your offer of a new one-year contract and believe it serves as testament to the excellent service East Georgia has provided to the citizens of the city of Covington for the past seven years," stated the rejection letter, signed by Athens-based attorney Russell Edwards. "Unfortunately, the city of Covington's solicitor no longer refers enough cases to probation for East Georgia to serve Covington effectively."

As a result of the rejection, the city turned back to the bid process it had abandoned earlier this month, and the council voted Monday to select Judicial Alternatives of Georgia as the next probation services provider, because the company had the best bid.

The rejection letter came after the Covington City Council voted March 5 to extend its contract with East Georgia Correctional one more year and to reject all bids the city had received when it put out a call for probation service providers.

East Georgia Correctional chose not to bid on the contract, but former and now volunteer employee Jennifer Hartman told the council Feb. 20 that she and Martin felt the company was excluded from bidding because of language in the contract. City officials said the language was simply standard contract language.

At the March 5 meeting, in a 3-2 vote, councilmen Keith Dalton, Chris Smith and Mike Whatley voted to extend the contract with East Georgia Correctional. Dalton said after that meeting he was concerned about having both a new judge and new probation company at the same time. Covington Municipal Court Judge David Strickland was not reappointed earlier this year, and attorney Ben Hendricks has been acting as interim judge, though a new judge is expected to be selected soon.

While there was talk that Martin was seeking a three-year contract extension, both of the parties she was rumored to have spoken with, Mayor Ronnie Johnston and Dalton, said Tuesday she did not ask them for a contract extension.

Johnston said Tuesday that Martin's attorney called him and wanted to set up a meeting with Johnston and City Manager Steve Horton; however, Johnston suggested the attorney address the entire council if he wanted to talk about the contract.

Following the announcement that Martin had rejected the contract offer, the council discussed Monday how to move forward as the existing contract ends March 31.

Because the city had just bid out the contract, City Attorney Ed Crudup said the council could simply ratify the contract that had already been agreed upon with Judicial Alternative of Georgia (JAG), the company that won the bid. The council's approval was subject to JAG accepting the city's offer, but JAG Owner Ken Kight said Tuesday his company would accept the offer.

Administrative Services Director Ronnie Cowan sent an email out late Monday after the council meeting to all seven providers that submitted a bid previously, asking them if they wanted to confirm or reject their original bid. Kight said Tuesday his company had confirmed its bid and, since it was already selected as the best bid by city officials, the company is expected to be selected.

When asked how he would handle such a quick transition, Kight said the company has had quicker turnaround times before. He referenced a contract with a court in Columbus, where the judge fired the probation services provider and JAG was up and running in two days.

"It's nothing we have not done before. We could put a temporary probation office up, see people and send out letters and we could be fully operational within two or three days," Kight said.

One of the main reasons, the city looked to bid out the probation services contract in the first place was that East Georgia Correctional was no longer reimbursing the city for transporting probationers back and forth and for providing supervision. By switching to JAG, the city is expected to save nearly $40,000, according to city officials; Cowan previously said JAG was the only company that offered those services.

Kight said previously his company has offered to:
n provide transportation to and from community service work sites
n electronically download all data to the clerk's office so workers wouldn't have to do it manually and so that judges and court personnel could see any case info online
n provide Spanish speaker interpreters to court at the company's expense
n not pass along any of those costs onto the city or probationers

Dalton and Smith both said Tuesday that they never had contact with Martin in between the day the former employee spoke to the council and the day Martin rejected the contract extension offer.

"I have not had any conversations with Ms. Martin or Ms. Hartman or whatever about ‘Hey, y'all want to do this, don't do that,' whatever, and you know about as much as I know. My thing is now, they rejected it, plan b, we have to get something going on for ourselves," said Dalton, who said he didn't find out about the rejection letter until 4:30 p.m.

"I was like ‘Well dang, where did this come from?' yesterday. My whole thing is life goes on. It's business, that's the way at I look at what we do with the city, and we have to keep the ball rolling. That's why I just went ahead and made the motion last night like I did," Dalton said. "No hard feelings, no nothing, it's just the hand I was handed last night and I tried to make the best of it."

In the rejection letter, Martin's attorney also wrote, "We wish you and the other members of the judiciary in Covington the best of luck in striving to restore the citizens' faith in their judicial system."

The comment echoes statements made by Hartman in a previous email to the city council, where she alleged Judge Strickland's romantic relationship with a probation officer affected his performance.

Municipal court meets every Wednesday and hears minor traffic infractions, parking citations and city ordinance violations issued within the city limits of Covington. The court does not handle civil or small claims cases. The Covington courtroom is located in the Covington Police Department, 1143 Oak St.

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