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BOC questions payments to 'volunteer' board member

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 on Tuesday to require members of the Housing Authority of Clayton County (HACC) to explain why its chairman, and four other members, are drawing a salary from its Facilities Holding Company (FHC) for what the commissioners view as voluntary work.

"The FHC is an LLC (limited liability company) that is wholly owned by the HACC," said Commissioner Wole Ralph this week. "The state law clearly says that the Housing Authority board members cannot be compensated for their work as board members ... the law is clear on that.

"They [are] paying themselves in violation of the state law and the operating agreement," Ralph continued. "I believe that those board members should be compelled to return all the money, and be asked to resign immediately. If they don't resign, I think the board should take steps to remove them."

Sometime last year, the Facilities Holding Company's bylaws were adjusted to allow FHC board members to be compensated $500 per meeting, with a cap of $500 per month, said Ralph. However, under state law, the board members of any county housing authority are not permitted to accept payment for their services. They serve on a volunteer basis.

Ralph won support for a hearing from commissioners Sonna Singleton and Virginia Gray. Chairman Eldrin Bell and Commissioner Michael Edmondson voted against the hearing, citing a need to first engage the HACC in dialogue.

Ralph said that if the HACC needed to explain its side, it could be done at a hearing.

Under the FHC operating agreement, the chairman of the HACC is, by default, also chairman of the FHC.

Paul Jones, maintains that as chairman of the FHC and HACC, he serves in different capacities, and the FHC is within its legal right to compensate board members.

Jones said the call for a hearing is a "misunderstanding" and the result of a lack of communication.

"I was on the agenda for the BOC meeting [on Jan. 15], but I was never informed that I was supposed to be there," said Jones. "I've never spoken to Mr. Ralph. I would never disrespect the board by not showing.

"[The accusation] hurts my character and my feelings," Jones continued. "We're here to better the county and the citizens that live in it."

The FHC was created in July 2004 to oversee the management of Premier Garden Apartment Complex on Garden Walk Boulevard in College Park -- a property owned by HACC. The FHC Board of Managers is composed of four members, two appointed by the BOC and two appointed by the HACC.

The mission of the HACC is to purchase distressed properties and revitalize them. The cornerstone of its efforts -- Premiere Garden -- once a rundown apartment complex, is now a vibrant 432-unit complex in which only 10 units are vacant.

Coming to the defense of the HACC during the call for a hearing recently was Chris Wood, public information officer for the HACC and FHC. He said compensation for board members comes from rent paid at Premiere Garden, not taxpayer dollars.

"I think it's very political and it's a shame that it has come to this," said Wood. "They're being compensated as members of the Facilities Holding Company, not the Housing Authority, and there is a distinguishable difference. It upsets me that there is an inference of wrongdoing. Tell me what property wouldn't pay somebody to oversee it," Wood continued. "The money is nominal for the amount of service they return."

Chairman Bell called for "due diligence" to be done by the county before any accusations are made.

"If they are wrong, let's let them understand why they are wrong," said Bell. "Before we make all kinds of charges, we need to make inquiry. We owe the public a responsibility beyond just shooting from the hip. We don't want to get the reputation of: 'This is how we treat our volunteers,'" Bell continued. "I urge caution in this, so we don't get involved in any unnecessary litigation."

No date for a hearing has been formalized, according to county attorney Michael Smith.