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Residents seek spending, cemetery relocation probes

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

In the wake of a recent accounting flap, and a decision to move a controversial graveyard, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) faced sharp community criticism Tuesday night.

Several speakers complained about the problems created when the county's finance department submitted its FY 2007 audit report to the state incorrectly, and then failed to correct the deficiencies in a timely manner. As a result, the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts decided to block Clayton County from receiving most state grant funds, a decision that could cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Henry Anderson, a local doctor, called for a forensic audit, saying that it is "the only audit that can restore the public trust."

Michael Bryant, who unsuccessfully challenged Wole Ralph for the District 3 commission seat in this year's Democrtaic primary, called for changes in Clayton County's finance department.

"You and Miss [Angela Jackson, county finance director] cannot see eye-to-eye on financial matters," said Bryant. "If you are not confident in the people who work for you, you should either remove them, or mentor them to be better."

Jackson was present, but did not comment on the blockage of state funding during the meeting.

The ire citizens exhibited at Tuesday's meeting also spilled over into the issue of relocating a church cemetery.

The BOC voted 4-0 (with Commissioner Wole Ralph absent) to approve the removal of the historic Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church Cemetery from the property of local developer John D. Stephens, who has a landfill on the site.

Ed DuBose, president of the Georgia State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), accused commissioners of catering to Stephens because they accepted political donations from him. He accused commissioners of allowing some of the graves to be moved prior to approval, and called for an investigation of the county by the state.

"I'm deeply concerned about your vote," said DuBose. "This board sits on at least $7,000 of this company's money. That's what we have been able to find out and trace.

"I wrote a statement to the school board before they got in the mess that they got in, and I watched it crumble," said DuBose. "I will say the same thing to this board ... we call for an investigation of the entire board by the [state's] Attorney General and the State Ethics Commission."

Outgoing commissioner, Virginia Gray, in whose district the graveyard sits, made the motion to approve relocating the cemetery. She received a donation from Stephens in her 2008 campaign for BOC chairman, according to campaign records..

Crandall Bray, a lawyer and a former BOC chairman, represented Stephens' landfill company before the BOC.

Eldrin Bell, BOC chairman, told residents he has received campaign donations from Stephens in the past. "I, like others, have received campaign contributions from this company," said Bell. "I have made a decision based on what would be the best decision for the community."

Dexter Matthews, Clayton County NAACP chapter president and an opponent of the relocation, said Tuesday night was "the most embarrassing day I have seen in Clayton County.

"I'm just appalled that they would do this," said Matthews. "It doesn't make sense that a former county chairman is being [Stephens' attorney]. All of you have received money from Stephens."

Later, he added, "It seems like their judgment is clouded."

Tonya Lee Willis, a College Park resident who has led opposition to the removal of the Union Bethel AME Church Cemetery, spoke for nearly 60 descendants of the church who were present at the meeting. They stood up in unison to express their disapproval.

"I ask you as a board to reconsider your decision," said Willis. "To reconsider what you have done to the history of this family, which stands before you. You have desecrated their heritage and history."