In light of continuing public questions and complaints, County Attorney Tommy Craig, with permission from a majority of commissioners, released some details from the Jan. 21 executive session in which commissioners discussed choosing the next county manager.
Craig told The News Thursday he doesn’t believe the board violated the Open Meetings Act and said commissioners repeated much of the discussion that took place in executive session in their public comments preceding the vote Jan. 21 to appoint Transportation Director Tom Garrett as assistant county manager.
On behalf of the county, Craig released the minutes from the executive session – which contain minimal detail – and recounted much of the discussion from the executive session, with the exception of any discussion about specific candidates. Both the minutes and a transcript of Craig’s full recounting can be read at CovNews.com.
Details of Jan. 21 executive session
In his recounting, Craig said the board first discussed the current county manager, John Middleton, and "expressed its desire to retain access to (Mr. Middleton’s) knowledge and services as needed after his retirement."
The board then spoke with Middleton about being able to contact him in the future, though no formal arrangement was discussed, Craig said. Commissioner Levie Maddox then said he was ready to make a decision on the next county manager to begin the transition. The board then discussed specific candidates.
Craig said Commissioner Nancy Schulz objected to the discussion, saying she believed a process was needed, including advertising the position, interviewing candidates and getting the form of government issues settled. Other commissioners did not agree with waiting, Craig said.
Craig gave his opinion that if the majority of the commissioners knew who they wanted to be the next county manager, then delaying would not be wise.
He said Schulz said the board had veered too far from what the Open Meetings Act allows by discussing process, but Craig said Schulz was the only person who discussed process in any depth.
When given a transcript of Craig’s recounting, Schulz said she wasn’t specifically commenting on the legality of the executive session from a "personnel standpoint" but was expressing concern about how she felt the entire discussion was inappropriate, because the public wasn’t involved, there was no formal interview process, and a replacement county manager was being chosen without a clear structure in place.
"’This doesn’t feel right to me. It feels as though we are not acting in the best interests of the public.’ I said those exact words," Schulz said Friday.
For a transcript of Craig’s full recounting and more comments from Schulz, click on the documents above this article (documents cannot be viewed from the mobile version of the website).
Questioning the executive session
Schulz was the first person to raise concerns about the appropriateness of having the discussions in executive session, and said Jan. 21 in open session she felt the board was moving forward on naming a replacement without any formal process and without public involvement – particularly after the board had agreed at its prior meeting to first look at the form of government before deciding on a replacement county manager.
However, four citizens also criticized the board during the citizens’ comments portion of Tuesday’s meeting, including two who said the county violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act.
Jessica Pierson handed out a section of the law and said the board should release any portions of the minutes that were not allowed under executive session and rescind the vote to appoint an assistant county manager.
Dennis Taylor said the meeting should have been opened up when one commissioner questioned the legality of the executive session.
Though he did not mention it at the meeting, Taylor told The News he filed a formal complaint with the Attorney General’s office, questioning going into executive session for the purposes of "succession planning": Only discussions of pending litigation, potential real estate acquisition, sale or transfer or certain personnel actions are allowed to be discussed in executive session. Taylor also questioned the creation of a new position and the lack of public notice.
Craig, who had not been notified of an official complaint through the Attorney General’s office, told The News Thursday the "board did not discuss the creation of a new position.
"The reason they didn’t (is) in the board’s discussion among themselves (outside of the Jan. 21 executive session), they had talked about an assistant county manager. There was general recognition in the room that was what was being discussed," Craig said,
He said the only question of title was raised by Schulz.
Craig said the executive session never strayed far from the primary topic of personnel, in terms of discussing specific candidates to be the next county manager.
"If the primary focus, the primary reason for the executive session is to discuss matters that are clearly exempt from the open meetings requirement, then the fact that you have some tangential discussions about something, which if viewed in isolation would be a topic that would have to be in opens session, then it’s just not practical to run back and forth across the hall, having some discussions in open and some discussion closed," Craig said Thursday,
"So, I suspect that this sort of thing goes in every local government in the state of Georgia.
Craig said he’s probably been in close to 3,000 meetings involving either Newton County or other local governments and guessed he’s participated in hundreds, if not thousands, of executive sessions. He said he’s familiar with the process and law.
"There wasn’t anything that occurred in this executive session that occurred out of the ordinary," he said. "And the fact that all of this was roughly (said by commissioners) within five minutes of the break-up of executive session, shows (the county doesn’t) have anything to hide and there was not any effort to hide anything.
"I really think that the board was engaged in discharging its duties sand responsibilities the whole time, and I don’t see where anybody did anything wrong."
Taylor said Friday he plans to pursue his complaint to the Attorney General’s office. Historically, the Attorney General’s office has tried to mediate open-meetings law complaints, according to media stories and the attorney general’s website.
"Upon receiving a complaint from a Georgia citizen, attorneys at the Department of Law work to ensure that local governments provide all the access to meetings and records that Georgia citizens are entitled to under the law. If local governments fail to fulfill their obligations under the Open Meetings and Open Records acts, our office can initiate legal action to force the local government to obey Georgia’s sunshine laws," according to the AG’s website.
Fines of up to $1,000 can be charged for a first violation, and fines up to $2,500 can be charged for subsequent offenses, according to the text of law.
The only step the board must make is to formally approve the salary of $82,316 for Garrett and the job description for the assistant county manager position.