What happens when those individuals elected to public office or work as public servants or have a position in civil government violate the law? Absolutely nothing. It’s seen extensively in the federal government in Washington, DC, the numerous States and now, in the local government of Newton County, Georgia. It was reported that the Newton County, Georgia Recreation Commission Board, in a “special called meeting”, unanimously approved bonuses to be paid to Recreation Commission staff in violation of Georgia law.
The Newton/Rockdale Citizen reported:
Senior staff members of the Newton County Recreation Department who received one-time bonus payments in December were told Monday night that they will have to return the money.
Newton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Marcello Banes, County Attorney Megan Martin and County Manager Lloyd Kerr met with the Recreation Commission board in an hour-long closed-door session Monday. Afterwards, Banes said the commission had been informed that the money would have to be repaid.
Recreation Commission Chairman John Anglin said Tuesday the board is acting on the legal advice received Monday night.
“We have instructed our team to pay back the salary increase payment and a payment plan will be discussed with each individual,” he said.
Banes said the bonus payments are not legal under the state’s gratuities clause, which states that the General Assembly shall not grant or authorize extra compensation to any public officer, agent, or contractor after the service has been rendered or the contract entered into. The clause is applied by extension to local governments, authorities and agencies. [Georgia Constitution, Article III, Section VI, Paragraph VI.]
The bonuses totaled more than $28,500, with each employee receiving 8 percent of their annual compensation, as follows: Executive Director Ternard Turner, $6,166; Assistant Director Dwayne Mask, $5,120; Athletic Manager Horace Stroud, $4,171; Finance Manager Greg Sullivan, $4,298; Recreation Administrator Matt Taylor, $4,373; and Recreation Administrator Kale Curtis, $4,373.
An Open Records Request for documents from the county revealed these bonuses were approved unanimously in a special meeting of the Recreation Commission board and paid in addition to the $300.00 each received during the holidays. This holiday bonus was considered an incentive and budgeted by the Newton County Board of Commissioners. Wouldn’t that extra $300.00 be in violation of Georgia law as well, even though it was budgeted? According to the Georgia Constitution, yes. The big question is where did the $28,000.00 originate to pay the bonuses?
According to The Newton/Rockdale Citizen, “the bonuses were ‘based on employee performance and availability of funds through salary savings’”, which was achieved through vacant staff positions through the fiscal year.
Newton County Board of Commissioner Chairman Marcello Banes (D) expressed “disappointment”, “that, in his opinion, a department director had structured a plan in order to get a raise. Recreation Director Ternard Turner, who was hired in December of 2018 “after serving as division manager for Parks and Recreation for the city of South Fulton”, earns a little over $76,000.00 per year.
A department director violated the State of Georgia’s gratuities law, gets to keep his job, and the punishment is for the money to be repaid by all who received bonuses. The response by those in the local government is “disappointment”. Why is the Department Director still employed? He violated the law and should be held accountable. This is not Monopoly where you “Do not pass Go” and “do not receive $200.00”, then use a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
But, just like in the federal government, the status quo is discovering wrongdoing, defer accountability, let the perpetrator(s) keep the position, and move along because there’s nothing to see here. Turner’s salary is $23,000 over the median income for Newton County residents, which was $53,309.00 in 2017. And, he needs a raise after working only one year in the county as department director?
What’s even more astounding is the county attorney was present when this was discovered. Aren’t attorneys officers of the court and required to report crimes? Turner should not be let off with a “sorry”. Yes, the money should be returned, but Turner should be held accountable to the law.
Individuals who embezzle money from private corporations are prosecuted and if found guilty, serve time in prison. Would a private company be satisfied with “sorry”, reparations of returning the money, and letting the individual keep their job? Hardly. So, why should it be any different for an individual working in local government? According to the Board Chairman, the director “structured a plan” to get a raise. So, this was not some last-minute appropriation by the director or the board. It was planned.
However, while the gratuities clause may be Georgia law, there are no consequences for its violation. That’s convenient since this law has been chronically and grossly abused. The losers are the taxpayers.
Just this year, Newton County residents saw an increase in their millage rate to determine property taxes. With the landfill guffaw that is costing the taxpayers $8 million dollars, the maneuvering by county commissioners sitting on the Solid Waste Authority to purge private citizens, and the move to privatize solid waste management after taxing residents in order to construct waste convenience centers, the Newton County Board of Commissioners has a history of shady practice. The tax applied for the convenience centers was not removed once the money was raised.
Board members covered for the former county attorney who received a salary of $1 million dollars per year, had his hand in several adjacent county utility authorities where he possibly received payment, caused the $8 million dollar judgment against the county by conveniently leaving out a zoning map, and ended up being delinquent on his income taxes. The Board frequently adjourns the public meeting to discuss meeting agendas then reconvene to vote without the public knowing what the specific issue concerns. The former Board chairman used the Sheriff’s Office deputies as strong-arm thugs to stifle freedom of speech when it was unfavorable, and he was being pressed for an answer to a legitimate question. The local newspaper had been video recording these meetings and posting the video online for residents to review, but this stopped a few years ago.
To attend a Board of Commissioners meeting, an individual has to consent to a violation of their right to be secure in their person and effects through an officer searching only women’s effects, not men’s, or be barred from exercising the right to freedom of speech. Challenging the two Sheriff’s department officers charged with operating the x-ray machine and unreasonable search and seizure will result in two additional officers coming to engage in intimidation by standing beside you, invading your personal space. Having kindergarten scissors on your person or in a bag results in two Sheriff’s department officers manhandling you to “ensure safety”. Yes, kindergarten scissors with a blunt end and as dull as a tabletop and only cutting paper will have you manhandled by two good size officers.
Despite these infractions being reported to the State representative, Senator, district attorney, governor, lieutenant governor, Sheriff’s Association, the State Attorney General’s office, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, it was reported none of these entities investigate wrongdoing on the part of the Sheriff or the Sheriff’s department. The complaint would need to go directly to the Sheriff’s department. How convenient that law enforcement is allowed to investigate itself.
It’s past time for citizens in Newton County to protest these infringements and hold the Sheriff to his oath to the Constitution as well as kick these crooked commissioners off the board. Sadly, the citizens won’t because some of the commissioners and the Sheriff are black; people are afraid to be called racist. However, all the commissioners need to go, regardless of demographics, because going along with violations is supporting the violations. And, when a Sheriff is not honoring his oath to the Constitution, he should be removed regardless of gender, religion, color, sexual orientation or creed.
Unfortunately, this won’t happen in the small Georgia county of Newton. So, some of us are voting with our feet.
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