There is an old adage that legislating in a nasty business, kind of like making sausage. Well I have made sausage before, and it was not nearly as nasty as the legislating I saw last night at the Newton County Board of Commissioners meeting.
Commissioner JC Henderson had last month been about to take his son to Tuskegee College to begin classes when he learned just before registration that the athletic scholarship his son had been promised would not be forthcoming because the coach who had approved it had suddenly left the school. With nowhere to turn, Henderson, who had gotten payroll advances before from Newton County on his commissioner pay and always repaid them, approached Chairman Ellis. The Chairman tried unsuccessfully to reach the County Manager and had the Clerk verify that there was no prohibition on payroll advances to commissioners. With just a few minutes to make the decision, Chairman Ellis authorized a payroll advance for $4,500.00 for Commissioner Henderson with a provision what it be repaid as soon as possible but if necessary by payroll deductions of $ 85.00 per pay check.
The payroll advance was repaid within 10 days.
The Chairman, duly chastened by the public outcry and attendant publicity, took full responsibility for the incident and suggested legislation to eliminate payroll advances for all public employees and elected officials.
Up until the last part of the Board of Commissioners meeting of Sept. 2, every one acted as they should have. Commissioner Shultz, when she learned of the advance, made the other commissioners aware. The Chairman, realizing the optics were not good, apologized and promised to sponsor a change in policy to prevent such an advance from happening in the future. Commissioner Henderson immediately sought and obtained funds to pay the advance off. Commissioner Douglas, whose facsimile signature had been used by the accounting department on the check, had brought attention to the use of facsimile signatures and suggested the elimination of the practice.
Not satisfied with the public acceptance of responsibility and apology of the Chairman, the Board stripped Ellis of his management of the county’s vehicle fleet and engineering department on a motion by Commissioner Maddox. Under the charter, Ellis retains the management over the road department.
In an even more bizarre action, Commissioner Nancy Shultz moved to remove Henderson from all boards with “fiduciary” or financial power, removed him from the Nelson Heights board of which he was chairman and the Recreation Board, rescinded approval for six small parks in Henderson’s district and re-keyed the locks to the center’s doors. And what was the purported act of dishonesty which Henderson engaged in to warrant this humiliating and vindictive punishment? Is it that he, in a moment of emergency asked the Chairman to authorize a payroll advance on his commission salary exactly like he had in the past, and then proceeded to pay off the advance within ten days?
Or was the real reason that Shultz supported Henderson’s opponent in the recent Democratic primary runoff and she saw an opportunity to engage in petty politics? Or could it be that Henderson had broken ranks with the Democrats and voted with Mort Ewing and Tim Fleming in 2011 when they had stripped the administrative powers of then Commission Chairman Democrat Kathy Morgan and created the County Manager position? Or could it be that Henderson had once again voted with Republican Commissioner Douglas to kill the 2050 Plan back in August? Or perhaps it was a confluence of all those reasons combined with the political ambition to seek the office of Chairman herself.
There is a whisper campaign out there which suggests other improprieties by Henderson, but Commissioner Nancy Shultz did not lodge any specific accusations against Henderson and he was afforded no opportunity to know the allegations against him or offer a defense to them. Indeed, we were left to guess as to why such a harsh and humiliating punishment was levied.
Whatever the real reason for the motion proposed by Shultz, the shame is that three other commissioners participated in the political lynching of Henderson. Commissioner Henderson was recently elected to his sixth term on the Newton County Board of Commissioners. Obviously, his constituents have confidence in him. He has served with a passion for his constituents and the youth of the County. Without his determination the Nelson Heights Community Center would not exist and recreation would not serve the role it does in the lives of our young.
Yet, without a bill of particulars of the accusations of misconduct or an investigation into the facts, which Shultz did not even call for until after the levying of the punishment, or any due process, the Board passed judgment and executed the sentence on both the Ellis and Henderson.
And remarkably, the Board had to be reminded during the citizen comment section of the meeting that in spite of punishing two elected commissioners for what Shultz referred to as a violation of the code of ethics and a breach of the oath of office, the Board had failed to even take action to bar the practice of payroll advances for employees and officials in the future.
Tuesday night was a shameful exhibit of raw politics. Commissioner Shultz used an innocent if unwise request by a fellow commissioner as an excuse to even old political scores at the expense of the constituents of his commission district. The Board for reasons unclear but certainly political chose to support Shultz in her petty use of office, and then went on to further dilute the official powers of the only commissioner elected county wide.
Michael P. Johnson
Life-long Covington Resident