COVINGTON, Ga. – Gene Wills, vice chair of the Newton County Democrats, raised a concern during the Covington City Council meeting Monday evening over political parties meeting free of charge at city-owned facilities.
Wills said the Newton County Republican Party has met at the Covington Municipal Airport free of charge and the Democratic Party should have been informed of the free meeting location.
“It puts the democratic party at a disadvantage,” he said. “They (the Republican Party) have more money for things they need to advance their candidates.”
Wills said he was concerned about the favoritism of allowing one party to meet for free over another.
“It seems like dirty politics,” he said. “If you have or know the right people you get breaks and you don’t have to pay the fees.”
Wills asked the council to either give the Democratic Party free meetings as well or reimbursement for the meeting locations that the party has paid for in 2018.
“To me, when it comes to the republican and democratic parties, if you know that someone is getting an advantage and doing something like that for free, you should offer it to the other party,” he said. “Whatever you’re doing for one you’ve got to do for the other. We should have been notified that we could go there rent free once they started.”
City Manager Leigh Anne Knight said there is currently no fee schedule in place for the airport facilities, so any organization can meet there free of charge, including the Democratic Party. She said, however, a plan is in place to create a fee schedule this summer, which would then require a payment to use the space.
“We haven’t been charging for the airport. We did always charge for other buildings but we haven’t started that yet,” she said. “We are working on a fee structure, but that fee structure – I mean, we’ve actually been tossing that around a lot longer than I even knew about anybody meeting out there to be perfectly honest with you.
“So, we had no idea that it was an issue because this is something we should have been doing. We haven’t been. We are not going to try to put this in place come July.”
Knight said it would be the decision of the council to agree on the fee structure.
Councilman Josh McKlevey said this conflict has created the need for a fee structure at the airport.
“It is my understanding that the democratic and republican parties meet at the same time,” he said. “It was my understanding, to prevent these conflicts from happening and getting into ‘Oh, the city is taking preference over one party or another, or one organization or another,’ we now have to start looking at a fee, especially if they’re going to be at the same time.”
Wills said the Democratic Party is considering changing its meeting time to remove any scheduling conflicts.
Councilman Anthony Henderson suggested allowing the Democratic Party to meet free of charge the same number of times as the Republican Party. Once that allotment has been met, both parties would be changed per the approved fee schedule.
According to an open records request obtained by The Covington News, the Newton County Republican Party has met at the airport three times in 2018.
Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams said she just found out about the free meetings as well.
“Here we go with division again,” she said. “There’s enough division in our country, our state, our nation and our local level. I continue to say we’ve got more important things like the welfare of our people in general. We’ve got to be fair.”
Williams agreed with Henderson and said the Democratic Party should be allowed to hold an equal number of free meetings at the airport.
“The only way you can make wrong right is to try to do better,” she said. “You do better; you know better.”
Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston said he agreed with evening the playing field of free meetings. He said because the city works so well together through political differences, it is easy for the council to not notice what might seem like favoritism.
“The one problem that I have that I do want to address, is the fact that one of the things that I like about the city of Covington is we actually don’t sit up here as republicans and democrats or librals, or black, white, green … We actually sit here and try to what’s best for the city regardless of where it falls, period," he said.