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BOC's Finance Committee to re-do meeting

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

The recently established Finance Committee of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) met for the first time on Jan. 20 to select officers and meeting times.

However, due to a failure to publicize the meeting -- as required by the state's Open Meetings Act -- another meeting will be held today to re-establish the committee's framework.

On Jan. 20, at 8 a.m., the Finance Committee chose Commissioner Wole Ralph, Commissioner Gail Hambrick, County Finance Director Angela Jackson, Chief of staff Alex Cohilas, and Director of Policy and Planning Wade Starr as the standing members of the committee.

Ralph and Hambrick were appointed as chairman and vice chairman, respectively.

According to Ralph, the actions taken during that meeting will be voided, because the media was not notified of the meeting, and a public notice of the meeting was not displayed in accordance with state rules.

"The initial meeting should be declared void because it wasn't properly advertised," said Ralph on Wednesday. "What the board will do is properly advertise the meeting and make decisions from there."

He said the board will "lay the ground work" for the Finance Committee at 5:45 p.m., today, during a meeting at the Clayton County Administration Building.

While it was created by the BOC to give commission members additional oversight of the county's finances, the Finance Committee is one of several recent changes causing friction on the board. It was approved by a 3-2 vote during the board's Jan. 6 meeting, with Eldrin Bell, BOC chairman, and Commissioner Michael Edmondson voting against it.

Several other sweeping changes approved during that Jan. 6 meeting that have caused divisions on the board, include:

· The firing of Ed Wall, the county's former investment banker.

· The elimination of the positions of director of risk management, director of refuse control, and executive assistant.

· The creation of a new director of policy and planning position, and the appointment of Wade Starr, the county's fleet maintenance director, as the new policy and planning director.

After the Jan. 6 meeting, Bell said the creation of the Finance Committee and other structural changes to the county government are "reckless" and step "outside of the authority of this board given by the state of Georgia."

Bell was contacted Wednesday afternoon, but said he was unable to speak. Later attempts to reach him proved unsuccessful.

In the Jan. 20 meeting of the Finance Committee, Ralph and Hambrick attempted to add Jackson, Starr, and Cohilas as standing members.

Tension between Bell and Jackson surfaced in October, when Wall was contracted by the county to underwrite bonds and give financial advice to the board. Communication issues between the board and Jackson contributed to the county failing to properly report its 2007 fiscal audit to the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts, which in turn, temporarily barred the county from receiving state grant funding.

In 2004, Starr unsuccessfully ran against Bell for chairmanship of the board.

Cohilas is listed as a co-defendant in a lawsuit Bell filed earlier this month against his fellow commissioners. Bell is contending that Cohilas' chief of staff position, a position created by the board in December, usurps his power as chairman.

A hearing on the lawsuit will take place this Friday before a Clayton County Superior Court judge. Frank Jenkins, Bell's lawyer, said the creation of the Finance Committee is "a symptom of the reason why we filed the lawsuit," and an example of the board attempting "to take over the chairman's office."

"They established a committee, including staff members, without the chairman's knowledge," said Jenkins. "These are things that the chairman should be involved with directly." He said the meeting [of Jan. 20] "violates the Open Meetings Act" of Georgia.

Hambrick and Ralph insist that the purpose of the Finance Committee is to keep board members on top of the county's finances. "As far as we are concerned, we want to have better communication between the departments, and get the correct information out to the public," said Hambrick.

"The high degree of media attention around the county's finances in December created a desire of the board to let the citizens of the county know that we are taking the county's finances seriously," said Ralph.

The Finance Committee, he said, will allow "commissioners to have a laser focus on the issues that have a financial impact on the county."