More than 200 voters turned out for a town hall meeting Thursday to vent about the County Commission’s recent actions to strip District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson of his financial powers. They weren’t happy, but they were calm.
“We are very much concerned about (the commissioners) stripping Mr. Henderson and District 4 of all rights,” said Pastor W.J. Smith, head of the Newton County Minister’s Association, which organized Thursday’s meeting at Bethlehem Baptist Church with the group Newton County Concerned Citizens.
Smith said the groups hope the commissioners vote Tuesday to overturn their decision to strip Henderson’s powers, and restore power to Commission Chairman Keith Ellis, too. They believe commission decisions don’t become law until the minutes of the previous meeting are adopted. He said residents have already queued to speak during the public comments section of the meeting, which is listed on Tuesday’s agenda before the adoption of the minutes.
If the commission does as hoped, everything ends there. If not, “we will do what we have to do,” Smith said. That might include a march, which is something’s the county’s African-American community hasn’t done in 40 years.
“We hope we can resolve this without getting to that,” Smith said.
Smith said Henderson and Ellis were elected by the people, and that four of the five commissioners decided to ignore those people. Henderson’s powers were removed on a 4-1 vote (with Henderson against) after accusations that a $4,500 paycheck advance violated ethics rules. Ellis’ powers were decreased in a straightforward political power play, with commissioners voting to switch most of his powers to County Manager Tom Garrett.
The commission will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the county courthouse.
Smith said the actions against Henderson was “labeled a punishment because he asked to have something that has already been done for the last seven years” - namely, a paycheck advance to help send his son to college. Numerous county employees and two commissioners, including Henderson, have requested and received such advances, although the largest check issued before Henderson’s most recent was for just $1,000.
The commissioners’ vote also called for the re-keying of the locks at the Nelson Heights Community Center, and the removal of Henderson from the center’s board of directors and the county’s recreation board. It also put on hold plans to build several parks in District 4.
The commissioners, Smith said, have “stopped everything we’re all for.”
Archie Shepherd, speaking for Newton County Concerned Citizens, said District 4 does not stand alone in this fight. Residents from districts 1, 2 and 5 were at Thursday’s town hall meeting, and not all of them were black. Two white pastors attended the meeting as members of the Ministers’ Union, as well as 23 from black churches.
“This is an issue that can be resolved with a whole lot of effort,” Shepherd said “It’s just a matter of the being aware of how we feel. … We don’t need this (negative) publicity when we are looking at the best interest of the community. What we want to do is get this behind us and go forward. I hope we can get situation resolved without having to take to the streets.”
Smith said if the commissioners vote to restore Henderson’s and at least some of Ellis’ powers, everything settles down and goes back to normal. If not, community leaders will explore their options, including possible legal action or, yes, a march.
“Right now (the commissioners) don’t hear us,” Smith said. “I don’t want them to fear us, I want them to hear us.”