Some residents of Newton County’s District 4 are deeply upset about last week’s Board of Commissioners’ decision to strip Commissioner J.C. Henderson of most of his powers as an elected official.
The commissioners voted 4-1 to remove Henderson from the Recreation Board and the board of the Nelson Heights Community Center, re-key the locks on the center so Henderson couldn’t get in, and suspend all land acquisition planned for six new parks in the district.
Thing is, the commissioners forgot somebody, namely the residents of District 4, said Pastor W.J. Smith, head of the Newton County Ministers’ Union.
“They’re going to stop everything in the black community,” he said Monday in a meeting at The Covington News. “You’re going to just put a hold on everything.”
Smith and others, including a past president of the local NAACP chapter, Archie Shepherd, will host a town hall meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday at Bethlehem Baptist Church to discuss Henderson’s removal and possible solutions.
“We hope things get resolved” and Henderson’s powers are restored at the Sept. 16 commissioners’ meeting, Smith said. “After that (if nothing’s done), we’ll apply for a permit to march. We haven’t marched in 40 years.”
Henderson’s powers over financial matters were removed after his requesting and receiving a $4,500 paycheck advance to help send his son to college were declared unethical by Commissioner Nancy Schulz. Henderson paid the check back within 10 days, rather than the $85 increments as called for in the paperwork drawn up by county staff members.
There is a precedent for such advances, both to commissioners and county employees. Henderson himself received a $1,000 advance several years ago; he paid that back, as well.
“The issue is so severe because we feel they are taking the rights from Commissioner Henderson (and) we elected him from District 4,” Smith said. “We feel it’s a racial issue.”
Henderson is black. Much of District 4 is black. Of the commissioners who voted to strip Henderson’s powers, three are white. The fourth, Lanier Sims, is black.
“Our point is that he (Henderson) was elected to represent District 4 and you do not have the authority to come in here and stop him,” Smith said, speaking of the commissioners. “The policy that he got for the Nelson Heights Community Center is the same policy that Mansfield had (for its community center). Now you want to take him off the board and lock him out, take his chair and knock him down.
“That’s embarrassing for the black community. To us, that is the problem.”
Smith said Henderson broke no laws accepting the check, that he just followed precedent, and that the names of Commission Chairman Keith Ellis and Commission John Douglas were on the check. Douglas has said he was unaware that his name was being electrically signed to checks; commissioners’ names had been rotated through to sign checks on an automatic basis.
“How can they kick him off? It can’t be that he stole money. They signed that check. … He paid the money back and now they’re going to strip powers from him.”
Worse, Smith said, nothing was on the agenda for the Sept. 2 meeting that suggested Henderson would be disciplined. Commissioners voted to add the item, and several others, to the agenda early in the meeting. Smith said that did not allow Henderson supporters an opportunity to speak.
“The African-American community is still trying to figure out how you come up with policies in midstream, how (Commissioner Nancy Schulz) is going to come up and strip him of Nelson Heights when nobody else ever got stripped” of powers for accepting a paycheck advance.
Plus, the land acquisitions halted were for parks in District 4 – and those parks were to be built with SPLOST money. Smith said he isn’t sure halting them for any reason, particularly a political one, is legal.
Shepherd said the hope is the commissioners will not accept the minutes from their last meeting and overturn their decision to penalize Henderson. If that fails, legal action may be considered. And if that fails, they march.