An attempt by some Newton County commissioners to move the operation of Washington Street and Nelson Heights community centers to the city of Covington during Tuesday night’s meeting at the Newton County Historic Courthouse was put on hold after commissioner J.C. Henderson said he was not informed of the move in advance.
The motion, originally proposed by District 5 Commissioner Levie Maddox, was for the county attorney to negotiate a contract, or an intergovernmental agreement, with the city of Covington and bring it back to the board of commissioners (BOC) during its Oct. 18 meeting.
Maddox said the motion stemmed from a delinquent tax notice on a 63-acre tract of land on Laseter Street that was purchased by Nelson Heights Community Center in 2014. The amount due from back taxes, fines and a lien by the city of Covington totals $11,237.44.
Back taxes for the years 2008 through 2012 were owed on the piece of land purchased in 2014. A structure on the property was condemned and demolition by the city of Covington for a total of $7,000, which placed a lien on the land.
At a previous BOC meeting, County Attorney Megan Martin said the county would need to either attempt to reduce the fees by requesting the city of Covington release its lien, sell the property, or pay the back taxes and fees.
“We can continue to pay this bill, or we can show courage and make an adjustment to allow these assets to move forward and prosper for the greater good of the community,” Maddox said Tuesday night. “I believe the city is ready to take over Nelson Heights and Washington Street. This would alleviate the county’s continuing financial burdens regarding the operation of the [Nelson Heights Community] center. It’s no secret the county’s finances are in bad shape.”
Lanier Sims, District 2, seconded the motion, before Henderson, who is on the board of Nelson Heights Community Center and represents the district in which the center is located, implied a deal was made with the city in violation of Georgia’s Open Meetings Act.
“What I’m saying is that they were having meetings when they weren’t supposed to have meetings,” Henderson said.
Henderson asked Martin to put together a letter asking the state’s attorney general to investigate a possible open meetings act violation, but later rescinded that request.
While speaking of Covington’s potential interest in Nelson Heights Community Center, Henderson brandished a copy of an email chain between himself, County Manager Lloyd Kerr and County Clerk Jackie Smith, concerning a visit by Covington officials to Nelson Heights.
In the email, Smith told Kerr that Henderson was asking what the visit was in reference to.
“They want to look at the building prior to pursuing obtaining the building form the county,” Kerr’s email from Aug. 4 said. “It is my understanding that the Mayor and some council members have expressed interest to the BOC.”
A discussion concerning the Nelson Heights Community Center was never held in a public meeting of the BOC or Covington City Council. Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston told The News he was never in a meeting with three commissioners concerning Nelson Heights or Washington Street community centers.
The state Open Meetings Act requires any meeting of a quorum of a public body to be open to the public or closed under limited and specific guidelines. Three members would constitute a quorum of the county commission.
“We had a discussion [Monday} night in executive session,” Johnston told the BOC Tuesday. “[The city council] is willing at this point to have further discussions with the council on this issue.”
Maddox, later in the meeting, restated his position for wanting the centers to be managed by the city of Covington.
“I believe we cannot next level our community centers,” he said during the commissioners comment portion of the meeting. “The city of Covington can. They have a cash cow and we are broke. They can next level it.
“Everyone who knows Mr. Johnston knows he is an eternal optimist. I think he has passion, energy, and I think he can build support around those programs. He can do that with Commissioner Henderson, who was the visionary, who I have applauded for being the visionary of that center a number of times,” Maddox said.
Commission Chair Keith Ellis pointed out that Maddox added the discussion of Nelson Height’s delinquent taxes to the agenda after the BOC’s deadline of Wednesday for placing items to be talked about during the following Tuesday’s meetings, and also said Henderson should have been involved from the beginning.
“The commissioner that birthed Nelson Heights, that came up with the idea originally, was Commissioner Henderson,” Ellis said. “For him not to be involved in some of these conversations is outrageous.”
Ellis also let his frustration be known about a commissioner talking with the city about county assets.
“To be bartering with the county’s assets is certainly something this board ought not to be in the business of doing,” Ellis said. “It creates division among the black community and the white community as well.”
District 1 Commissioner John Douglas then made a substitute motion that the discussion of moving Nelson Heights and Washington Street community centers to control of the city of Covington “start over” and that the board should “be sure to include J.C.”
“I don’t really have a problem with [Maddox’s] motion,” Douglas said “I do have a problem with doing something in a commissioner’s district if the commissioner is not a part of it.”
Douglas’s substitute motion passed 4-1 with Maddox voting against.
For more on this story see Sunday’s print edition of The Covington News.