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Chairs first chat packed with drama
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Newton County Chairman Keith Ellis keeps a small egg timer near his microphone to track the minutes when a resident speaks during the public comment portion of the Board of Commissioners meetings. Ellis knows that is not enough time for some problems. So this week, he launched bi-monthly Chats with the Chairman. Every Monday before the BOC meetings are held between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., Ellis will be in his office so Newton County residents can privately air their concerns and views.

The one visitor who came that hour brought a dangerous problem — bloodied feathers and smartphone recordings of dismembered chickens. The man owned chickens which he kept inside his yard. He and his wife enjoyed the hobby and the eggs. But his next door neighbor’s pitbulls invaded the yard and slaughtered the chickens. The man told Ellis he had filed a complaint with the sheriff. But when the man’s wife went out to feed the chickens, the pitbulls tried to attack her. She 

had the cool head and steady nerves to whip out her smartphone and film them.

“Let’s see what ordinances there are about fencing,” Ellis told executive assistant Hosanna Fletcher. “First, I need to corroborate the details of the story. Then I need to see if I can act as a mediator between the appropriate agencies who can help this man.”

In a perfect world, Ellis wishes he and his newly elected commissioners had the luxury of time to mesh as a team and study the detailed responsibilities of various government agencies.

“But that isn’t possible in a recession like this; we need to tackle problems immediately,” Ellis said.

When Thomas Jefferson was first elected president, Cheshire, Conn., farmers gave him a mammoth block of cheese made from the milk of 900 cows. Jefferson often served the cheese as snacks when he held open houses for citizens who wanted to discuss issues, ideas or problems with the president, according to John and Claire Whitcomb’s Real Life at the White House. Those informal talks were also a way for the president to shoot down rumors and reassure citizens who felt isolated from the leaders of the still-new United States.

“We don’t have cheese but I did put out chocolates to coax people in,” Fletcher said, pointing to a dish of Hershey’s Kisses.

Ellis repeatedly mentioned his worry that blogs have the power to spread damaging misinformation and conspiracy theories “although I don’t know how many people read them, what they say seems to get repeated.

“I took some heat when I cast the tie-breaking vote to put (former commissioner) Mort Ewing to be Newton County’s at-large citizen appointee on the Joint Development Authority,” Ellis said. “But I really believe his teamwork with Gov. Nathan Deal brought Baxter to Newton County and it can bring more of the medical research employers here.”

The bidding process for county contracts is another controversy Ellis must resolve. The BOC recently voted to put the county’s lawn care contract up for bid after it had already renewed Durden’s Lawn Maintenance’s five-year contract Feb. 5. Ellis called a Feb. 26 special meeting to announce there would be a request for proposals for the contract after giving commissioners copies of lawn care purchase orders that showed more work was done some years than other years, which resulted in different costs in some years.

In addition, there were periods of time when owner William Durden operated his business without a valid business license, but he said that was he was operating out of his home between 2002 and 2006 and didn’t mistakenly thought he didn’t need a license. He also said he caught up on all back payments and late fees.

Durden also showed The News letters and memos from the county requesting that he take on more work — in one case caring for two different sites, each about 12 acres — and that was the reason there were additional work orders.Durden also showed The News correspondence in which county officials told him how critical Newton’s budget shortfall had become and he offered to care for some sites for free.

“Yes, he did do that,” Ellis said, nodding. “Re-bidding the contract shouldn’t be interpreted as a reflection on the quality of Mr. Durden’s work.”

Ellis and county attorney Tommy Craig both said they want the request for proposal process to be more methodical, clearly stated and organized.

Ellis would like to see all contracts bid out after specifically stated years elapse. Currently, some contracts are bid out, others aren’t.

Durden showed The News his current contract, which contained wording that required the county to give him 60-days notice for termination.

He said the county has not sent him any notice. He and his three workers were doing their contracted jobs on lawn care sites this week. Durden does not want anyone to think he abandoned his duties.

He takes pride in landscaping a town that has become a backdrop for so many movies. He laid the flower beds for one of Tyler Perry’s “Madea” movies and lists other producers who had him do landscaping jobs for their films.

“The way this was handled really hurt my feelings, and I’m worried it hurt my reputation,” Durden said. “They could have asked me about the purchase orders before they held an entire special meeting to announce they wanted to take away my job. I dedicated my life to Covington. I’ve asked Chairman Ellis and Mr. Craig if I could meet with them and the commissioners and show them my paperwork and answer any questions they have. I want them to see that I’ve cut my prices even when the cost of the jobs increased. My company is small but I worked hard to do good work and have a good reputation.”

And Durden was also thinking of sitting down with Ellis during the next Chat with a Chairman.