The Newton County Historic Courthouse became a political hotbed, with racial and political undercurrents lying throughout the Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday night.
The seven-hour meeting began with a prayer for the family of District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson, whose son has been hospitalized. The prayer was given by Deacon Archie Shepherd. Immediately following the prayer, Shepherd read from emails between District 5 Commissioner Levie Maddox and District 1 Commissioner John Douglas. Another recipient was listed on the original email, but that name was whited out on the document that was distributed Tuesday.
Shepherd, a former president of the Newton County NAACP, then handed out two emails and an attached article, to which they referred, to all board members in attendance and audience members who indicated that they wished to have a copy.
The email from Maddox was under the subject “How do we stop the spread ???” and included a link to a story posted on AJC.com from April 15, 2015 titled “Georgia counties shift from majority white”. The reply of Douglas’s email was “nothing up my sleeve! I don’t know of any way to reverse this”.
The board was surprised by the emails’ distribution with Douglas, Maddox and Chair Keith Ellis saying they didn’t know the emails were being brought up.
Maddox, who is running for Newton County Chair, offered no comment on the topic, saying he planned “to take the high road on that topic.”
Neither Maddox nor Douglas mentioned the emails throughout the meeting, and none of the commissioners made comments at the end of the meeting, which lasted publicly until 1 a.m., with an executive session going past 2 a.m. Ellis, however, spoke during the chair comments portion of the meeting.
Ellis used his comments to express his disappointment of a series of votes on items related to purchases from the roads department, which he oversees.
Budgetary Conflicts Cloud Rest of Meeting
The first item for discussion was a Coats Tire Changer for $5,750, which passed 3-1, with Maddox voting against. That spurned Maddox to question the next five items, all roads department requests, and their total cost.
“That’s $242,000 on the next six items,” Maddox said. “I don’t believe any of this should be approved. I don’t remember any of this being discussed in the budget process.”
Then when the motion came up to approve the purchase of two 10-foot bat wing rotary motors for $26,500, District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz and District 2 Commissioner Lanier Sims voted in favor, while Maddox voted against and Douglas abstained, without giving reason. Needing three votes to carry, and with Henderson being absent, the motion failed due to lack of support.
After declaring the motion dead, Ellis then called for a recess and met with County Attorney Megan Martin. Following a conference with Martin and Interim County Manager Lloyd Kerr, Ellis announced that he had the ability to move items around in his budget from line to line, and the items requested were all within the budget.
“I’ve never gone over budget before,” Ellis said. “The road projects provide for all that we serve, we volunteer throughout all the different cities … and we’ve never charged and never asked for reimbursement.
“To face such a late hour and get ambushed like this is uncalled for. If I can’t mow the roads it’s going to be hard to maintain them and I can’t serve the citizens like I need to in the roads department.”
Douglas, ultimately, made a motion to reconsider the motion on the bat wing motors, and voted in favor. The purchase passed.
The next two purchases —for two Massey Ferguson tractors, a Link-Bell 33,000 pound excavator — passed 3-1 with Maddox voting against.
The clashing continued as the discussion moved from purchases by the roads department to resurfacing projects. The first was the resurfacing of Henderson Mill Road with money from the 2005 SPLOST. Seven miles were to be resurfaced via Pittman Construction, who had the low bid of $1,159,933.80.
Before a motion could be made Maddox questioned the project.
“I believe there is a number of much more important roads than Henderson Mill Road,” he said. “This is in my district, and I have very close friends up and down this road. But I think these funds should go to a more important road.”
Ellis said Newton County Public Works Engineer Chester Clegg deemed the project was needed and if not resurfaced would deteriorate further, and require more money for repairs. He also noted that the project was also discussed at the commissioners recent retreat in Athens, prior to coming for board approval Tuesday.
A motion on the project was never made, and it failed due to no action.
The next resurfacing project brought up by Ellis and the roads department was for Brown Bridge Road/Covington Bypass at the cost of an estimated $2 million, to be taken from 2005 SPLOST funds.
That motion passed 4-0, with Schulz making the motion, and Maddox seconding it.
“The Newton County Board of Commissioners are making it very difficult for the chair of the BOC to operate the public works department due to their failure to approve projects that already have funding.,” Ellis told The News in an interview after the meeting. “Roads need to be resurfaced for safety reasons.”
Before the meeting adjourned Tuesday night, Ellis said politics were at play on some of the board member’s decisions.
“During the 3 1/3 years I’ve been on the board, sometimes politics have been pretty ugly in Newton County,” Ellis said.
“I hope the citizens will look at some of the behavior tonight. I don’t think it had to do with some of the equipment necessary or needed. I think in some cases it was a complete disregard for the citizens of Newton County.”
Maddox said his votes during Tuesday’s meeting was not about politics, but was from concern with current budget needs.
“We have never discussed this prior to Tuesday’s meeting,” Maddox said to The News Thursday.