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City's court probation services up in air
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Fallout from the Covington municipal court saga continued Monday, when Jennifer Hartman, a former paid and now volunteer employee with the city's probation services provider said her company was excluded from bidding to potentially renew its contract.

However, on Tuesday City Attorney Ed Crudup reviewed the request for proposal (RFP) the city issued for a new probation company and said in his legal opinion it was clear and thorough and was not designed to prevent any qualified company from bidding.

The Covington City Council was set to approve a new probation services provider, Judicial Alternatives of Georgia, but it delayed that decision so that Crudup could review the RFP.

Specifically, Hartman said she and East Georgia Correctional Services owner Fran Martin felt they weren't able to apply because of specific wording on page 12 of the RFP: "The schedule shall...include conferences with former contractor who may have probationers under supervision, in order to establish an effective transition plan."

"Ms. Martin didn't put a bid in for this contract because in the (RFP) it clearly states that the new company will meet with the former company," Hartman told the council Monday. "That right there says that she did not have an opportunity, our company did not have an opportunity, to re-bid on this contract. That's not fair as a company, and that's not fair to the citizens that are on probation."

Crudup sent an email response to The News Tuesday after reviewing the RFP.

"Based on that review and Capt. (Willie) Davis' explanation of the process for evaluating the seven responses received to the RFP, it is my opinion that the RFP was clear, very thorough, free of significant error and contained no provision, specifically including Section II (D), that could reasonably be determined as designed to or having the effect of chilling the bidding by qualified prospective bidders," Crudup wrote.

Section II (D) is the provision Hartman referred to on page 12.

The council is expected to revisit the probation services contract March 5 meeting, but Councilman Chris Smith said he believes the entire bid process should start over.

"I wish they would open up the whole thing again and redo it," Smith said Tuesday evening. "I want the right judge, the right solicitor and the right probation company in place."

Willie Davis, the city's career development manager and part of the team that handled the RFP, said Monday that the wording "former contractor" simply refers to the transition period if a new company is chosen.

Davis said the current contract with East Georgia expires March 31, so a new company, if selected, would have to get records from East Georgia.

"I talked to Ms. Martin Wednesday at court, and she said she's already getting warrants together so that we can make a smooth transition," Davis said.

Davis said seven companies submitted bids to the city and said the city could only review those companies. The bids were due Dec. 20, according to the RFP.

City Manager Steve Horton and some council members asked Hartman why she had not come to the council before Monday night.

The city's municipal court is run by the municipal judge, who is appointed by the City Council. The judge is the one who chooses the probation services company, with the ratification of the council. Horton said the city's administrative employees have no oversight over the judge or court operations.

Hartman said she and Martin did have many meetings with some council members previously and with former Mayor Kim Carter.

"I just wish that if (Martin) had thought that when she read it that she would have come to the city and said ‘Does this mean I can't give a proposal?'" said Councilman Smith.

"We did," Hartman said.

"You all asked the city specifically?" Smith asked.

"We emailed the clerk and we never got a response," Hartman said, though she didn't specify whether she meant the city clerk or municipal court clerk.

"You're here tonight, why is tonight the first time you've come before the mayor and council?" Horton asked.

Hartman said she was asked the same thing when she sent a Feb. 1 email to the entire city council, listing numerous complaints against former Municipal Court Judge David Strickland, including allowing a romantic relationship at work to taint his judgment and actions during the past two-plus years.

She said Martin has already gone through a lot of turmoil since the late-2009 firing of former probation officer Mary Trammell, who was let go after stealing money from East Georgia. Trammell and Strickland were and still are in a relationship.

"I didn't want to put (Martin) through anything else," Hartman said. "I didn't want her in any more turmoil than she's already in."

Mayor Ronnie Johnston said he checked into the wording of the contract after meeting with Hartman previously.

"Although I guess I can understand how she would read it like that, unfortunately she did not put in a bid. This process, in my opinion, it's time to close the chapter on it. I think it's sad in many ways to be honest with you, but it's time this city moves forward," Johnston said.

Councilman Smith said he, Dalton, Davis, Ronnie Cowan, the city's Administrative Services Director, Hartman, Martin and Strickland have met in the council room many times before.

"There were a lot of problems amongst the whole group. There was obviously some miscommunication between probation and the judge, and this has been a long, ongoing process. I hate that it's come to this, but I agree with the mayor. I just wish if you had sent emails and not got a response that you would have come in person and sat down with Ronnie or Mr. Davis and said..."

Davis cut in at that moment and said that he did not who Hartman was until she sent the Feb. 1 letter.

Horton said the city tried to mediate the issues between the judge and the probation services company, but noted city personnel didn't have any authority. Only the council does, and he said the council has the ability, and could exercise it in the future, to hold a hearing to sort out any issues taking place with the municipal court.

Hartman said she didn't try to contact anyone on the council before Feb. 1 because of her position in East Georgia.

"But...I'm a volunteer now, because I lost my job. If the city's stand is to put this behind, this whole situation - because I agree, and I think we all agree this is an ugly situation - if your stand is to put it behind, that's fine," Hartman said. "I just don't think it's quite, I want to say fair but that's not the right word. We're losing our's just not right.

"If you knew the situation from beginning to end you would know it's not right. And we do the best job out there, and we would continue to do that job, but we're not getting the opportunity clearly because the new company will meet with the former company."

The temporary Municipal Court Judge Ben Hendricks signed the agreement with Judicial Alternatives of Georgia. However, by state law the council must vote on the contract. If the council votes not to approve the contract, it would be sent back to the judge, who would have to choose another company.

Councilwoman Janet Goodman had made a motion to approve the contract, but Councilwoman Ocie Franklin withdrew her second, so the motion died. The council then directed Crudup to review the contract.

Later in the meeting during public comments, Hartman again addressed why she or Martin did not come forward sooner.

"Besides the efforts we did make to talk to several council members and Mayor Carter, who we thought was the top, we were already getting retaliated against enough and had to work with Mr. Strickland daily. So now that is no longer in the picture, I felt I had the say something without being retaliated against," Hartman said.

In a previous interview The News, Strickland denied allegations of retaliation and said the probation officers were upset by his attempt to make the court operation more professional and less informal. Five days after the council received Hartman's letter, it voted to not reappoint as judge, though council members' official comments on the decision were that they wanted to go in a new direction.