Commission still embattled on rec center issue

By Justin Boron

Facing the mother of a 14-year-old killed in a recent shooting, and a room full of other concerned parents, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners drew more criticism for its decision last month to gradually fund the construction of several recreation centers instead of immediately setting aside all of the $40 million needed to build them.

As the timeline for construction of recreation centers becomes more clear and youth violence continues to escalate in the county, the community appears not to be budging on what has become yet another politically sensitive issue for Chairman Eldrin Bell four months into his first term.

The recent violence has fueled an outcry for a proactive strategy against juvenile and gang crime. One of the demands is for a safe place for young people to play.

Funding for the first recreation center in Riverdale in the Gardenwalk neighborhood has begun.

But the community wants assurance that all of the recreation centers will be completed.

County Commissioner Wole Ralph, the board's lone dissenter on the issue, says that assurance should come in the form of a $40 million loan.

"The county commission really damaged its credibility with the public by not setting aside the money," he said.

"We're going to continue to have these questions until we demonstrate our commitment to six centers," Ralph said. "There is a lack of trust in the community ... and it continues to fester."

The number of centers outlined in the 1-cent sales tax initiative that citizens passed in a 2003 referendum is debated by each side.

Dexter Matthews, the president for the Clayton County Branch of the NAACP, says the public was promised six.

Bell and others on the board say the legislation for the program didn't specify a number, only a dollar amount.

Regardless, Matthews said the community will not let the centers fall by the wayside this year.

Last year, several of the tax initiative's roadway improvements took precedence over the recreation centers, despite a letter from former commission Chairman Crandle Bray assuring the public that two would be built in the first year of the SPLOST program.

Matthews says the past and current administrations have been disingenuous to the public.

"I've been lied to quite a bit lately," Matthews said. "It started two years ago, and it's still going on today."

Also at Tuesday night's meeting, the commission approved the addition of another law firm for the legal battle spawned by Sheriff Victor Hill's personnel actions on Jan. 3.

The county approved a resolution to enter into a contract with Morris, Manning & Martin, LLP of Atlanta after its insurance company sent it a letter, saying it may deny coverage of some of the legal costs in the litigation surrounding Hill's dismissal of 27 employees.

Chief Staff Attorney Michael Smith said the company will continue to provide coverage, but reserves the right to deny at a later time, which could put the burden of any monetary settlement or judgment on the county government.