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Covington sticks with probation company
Split vote sides in favor of current probation provider
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The Covington City Council voted Monday night to reject all bids it had received for a new municipal court probation services provider and renew a one-year contract with current provider East Georgia Correctional Services.

The council voted 3-2 to renew the contract, with councilwomen Janet Goodman and Hawnethia Williams opposing; Councilwoman Ocie Franklin was absent.

East Georgia did not submit a bid last year when the probation services contract was bid out, but former employee Jennifer Hartman told the council at its Feb. 20 meeting that the company felt it was being excluded and did not come forward earlier because it was concerned it could be retaliated against by former Municipal Judge David C. Strickland. The municipal judge is the person who chooses the probation provider.

Strickland had a romantic relationship with an East Georgia employee, who was later fired for stealing from the company. Hartman alleges the working relationship between Strickland and the other East Georgia employees deteriorated after the firing. The council voted Feb. 6 not to reappoint Strickland as judge; applicants are currently being sought for the position until the end of March.

Strickland had been judge for 16 years, while East Georgia Owner Fran Martin has provided probation services for the city for 14 years.

Before East Georgia's contract was renewed, Councilwoman Goodman made a motion to accept the city staff-recommended bid by Judicial Alternatives of Georgia, but the vote failed, with councilmen Keith Dalton, Chris Smith and Mike Whatley opposing.

Goodman said she felt the bid process was handled "above board," and that everyone had a chance to bid, but Dalton said the council had learned new information since the contract was originally bid out last year.

Smith said he talked to interim Judge Ben Hendricks at the post office.

"He said being (that) a new judge was potentially coming on board April 1 and also having a new probation company the same day was going to be very difficult for anybody we pick as a new judge. And he also made a comment to me that he was perfectly content with who we had now as the probation company. He didn't have any issues with that company, and I want that for the record," Smith said.

Dalton said Tuesday that the concern about having both a new judge and new probation services provider was one of the chief reasons he voted to keep East Georgia.

When asked Tuesday, Hendricks said he felt East Georgia was doing a fine job and had a well run organization, based on his few weeks on the job, but he did not recall commenting on whether having both a new judge and new probation company would cause problems.

"As far as a comment I made about having a new judge and probation company at the same time, I don't recall having said that. I may have intimated that," Hendricks said. When asked if he believed it could cause a problem, he said "I don't have an opinion on that. I really don't."

The council had asked City Attorney Ed Crudup to review the request for proposal (RFP) after Hartman said the RFP's wording led East Georgia officials to believe they were not allowed to bid. Specifically, Hartman said she took issue with the wording choice "former contractor" contained 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."

After review, Crudup wrote "it is my opinion that the RFP was clear, very thorough, free of significant error and contained no provision, specifically including Section II (D) (the wording in question), that could reasonably be determined as designed to or having the effect of chilling the bidding by qualified prospective bidders."

Mayor Ronnie Johnston said in the work session that the city would save an estimated $38,757 by going with the new provider, who agreed to provide transportation for probationers who had to do public service work. The city currently covers this cost.

Johnston said he had just asked for the information that day. Dalton said Tuesday he didn't take the savings into account because the number was just an estimate and he had not had time to review the numbers for himself. He said he didn't know if the savings comparison was "apples to apples."

"There's been enough turmoil with all this tuff. I'd like to settle this thing down, get a new judge in there and see where we're at," Dalton said. "Those are our citizens and they come in for something like that and it needs to be handled professionally and efficiently. That is (worth) more than a few dollars to me."

Mayor Johnston asked City Attorney Crudup during the city's work session if the city could be legally liable by not approving the RFP.

"As I had said, there are a lot of lawyers out there looking for something to do and this would be one that I think would be fruitful for them to pursue in the event that you fail to follow through with the procedure that we've established here," Crudup said in the work session. "Basically, those lawsuits are based on what they call "arbitrary and capricious action of the council," and I can see how a plaintiff's attorney might be able to construct a case based on that."

However, the owner of Judicial Alternatives of Georgia (JAG) said he did not plan to pursue any legal action.

"We're very disappointed. We were looking forward to working for the city of Covington," Owner Ken Kight told The News. "But we respect the city government and what they chose to do. It's disappointing but we understand and we'll move on."

Kight said his company was going to:
- provide transportation to and from community service work sites
- 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
- provide Spanish speaker interpreters to court at the company's expense
- not pass along any of those costs onto the city or probationers

One of the main reasons, the city looked to bid out the probation services contract in the first place was that East Georgia was no longer reimbursing the city for transporting probationers back and forth and for providing supervision.

By switching to JAG, the city could have saved nearly $40,000. City Administrative Services Director Ronnie Cowan said previously JAG was the only company that offered those services.

Kight said JAG would not pursue legal or any other action.

"We are here to serve the courts, to serve the community and do the best job we can for anybody that wants to use us. We feel that's nor our style," Kight said Tuesday. "If the city of Covington chooses not to use JAG, we completely understand and we'll go serve other places. And in the future and if they ever want to use again we're available any time they need us."

When asked for comment, East Georgia Owner Fran Martin said "I have no comment at all at this time."

- In other city council news, the council agreed to schedule a work session to discuss the possibility of converting some of its vehicles to run on compressed natural gas (CNG) or buying CNG vehicles, as well as the possibility of building a $2 million CNG fueling station. The savings over gas in future years, as well as the possibility of selling CNG to the public and other government entities, could make the venture financially viable.

- The council voted to approve a process by which companies will be able to apply for temporary permits to sell their food or goods downtown during special events.

- The council did not agree Monday night to contribute $100,000 extra to complete the long-planned Covington Branch Library to Eastside High School trail project. The extra $100,000 would have covered the cost of placing 5 inches of concrete along the 10-foot-wide trail to allow public safety vehicles to drive down the trail in an emergency.

Councilman Chris Smith said the $225,000 the city has promised to the project is enough. Project coordinator Cheryl Delk will discuss the possibility of additional funding with the Newton County Board of Commissioners to see if they are willing to cover the cost or partner to cover the cost.