Tuesday night, the courtroom in the Historic Courthouse was the scene of a real-life drama that on its surface gave the appearance of a scripted conflict with Interim County Manager Harry Owens and County Finance Director starring as the innocent victims of ambush.
The two aggressors were County Attorney Tommy Craig and District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson. Observers had to wonder if Chairman Keith Ellis was in concurrence with what happened to Owens and Kelly. Curiously, or maybe not, Ellis, who has the authority to gavel a meeting into order or to a close if disorder reigns, seems to have lost his gavel when it should have been used to stop the public humiliation.
If you are one of the 101,850 Newton County residents not present to witness this sad spectacle, you owe it to yourself and decent people who still care about this county to find the video online and watch it.
Owens and Kelly came to the podium to discuss with the board replacing the HVAC system at the now closed county library on Floyd Street. It’s not as if the county has the $750,000 needed for a new system just sitting around, so Owens and Kelly had met with the head of the county’s bonding company and secured agreement to roll that amount into the refinancing of the bond used to build the county administration building. At this, Craig, unbidden, piped up to say he had spoken with the company’s legal counsel who told him that couldn’t be done. Instead, Craig proposed borrowing that sum from a local bank, something the chair seemed strangely enthusiastic about.
The county manager and county finance director, who were doing their defined jobs, stood slack-jawed, stunned at being undercut by the county attorney whose job is not the financial management of the county. Then again, when is the last time Craig ever had to abide by any definition of the scope of his duties? With some difficulty, Owens reclaimed the discussion and declared the question on the feasibility of getting the $750,000 through refinancing would be settled the next day.
(Here’s some critical later data: Craig had been involved since July with Owens and Kelly in discussions of refinancing with the bond company in hopes of saving enough money so that funds for the library HVAC could be made available. As late as August 5th, the three had met for further discussion with Craig never voicing concern or opposition. His planned attack on the unsuspecting county employees is all the more egregious in light of this information.)
The next attack came when Owens brought to the attention of the board that payments to Junior Hilliard for staffing the county convenience centers have regularly exceeded the contract limit for at least the past two years. The no-bid contract was last renewed in 2013 for four years with billing “not to exceed $412,331.” Owens suggested the contract be amended to reflect the actual amount being spent, sometimes $50,000 or more over the contract amount.
Lying in wait, Henderson pounced on Owens, first bizarrely asking, “When does your contract as county manager end?” Then, instead of acknowledging the financial issue and clear violation of the county’s purchasing policy, Henderson called his sidekick Hilliard to the podium to explain the overpayments.
Hilliard had papers to document his expenditures, suggesting Henderson had him prepared to explain himself. Hilliard maintained that the respected but deceased former county manager John Middleton had authorized the overpayment. Middleton was, of course, unable to defend himself. There was nothing spontaneous about the abridgment of the agenda. Hilliard wouldn’t sit down, and Henderson wouldn’t stop attacking Owens for daring to bring up overspending on the convenience centers — which also cost taxpayers almost $2 million a year on top of the budgeted but ignored contract line item.
Angered by Henderson’s attack on Owens, Commissioner Lanier Sims left his seat and purposefully walked away to take a seat in the audience, seething as the stage show continued. He remained there until citizen comments were allowed and jumped to the head of the line to denounce — as a citizen — the attacks on county employees just “trying to do their jobs in a transparent way.” “They don’t’ deserve to be treated this way,” he sternly intoned. He re-joined the audience and remained there until the meeting mercifully ended.
Actually, Tuesday’s stage show was perfectly transparent — in all the wrong ways. No one can claim the events of the evening were not scripted and micro-managed by someone above Owens and Kelly who can’t handle the truth or is unwilling to cede authority to responsible and capable staff. When truth emerges as it always eventually does, around here it becomes the prey and the bearers of truth are hunted down in public.