By Joel Hall
After several weeks of analysis, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to support legislation to create a fifth state court judgeship. If approved by the Georgia General Assembly, county officials have said, the additional judge would help alleviate a backlog in the court of more than 4,000 cases.
Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said the board came to Tuesday's decision after new financial indicators made clear that an additional judgeship would be economically feasible in next year's budget.
"Not unlike the rest of the nation, Clayton County faces budget challenges resulting from revenue losses and increased cost," Bell said Tuesday. "However, as late as yesterday, new revenue information has come to us that gives me an increased level of confidence in our financial department's overall financial security. I strongly believe that the good citizens of Clayton County need and deserve justice and in order to provide a level of protection, we must have additional help in our courts to deal with the 4,000 backlogged cases."
On Wednesday, Bell clarified his comments, and said that a meeting Monday with the county's tax commissioner, tax assessor and finance director eased his concerns that the county would be over budget in the next fiscal year.
Following the meeting, "I had a much greater of appreciation of where we are in terms of our finances," Bell said. While "that doesn't mean that we are out of the hole when it comes to balancing our budget ... I do not feel like the added expense of another judge will outweigh the need for justice in our county."
Yolanda Lewis, court administrator for the Clayton County State and Superior courts, said the decision was "a step in the right direction."
"Right now, you have four judges trying to do the work of 9.7 [judges]," she said. "It certainly shows that we are putting citizens first in regards to justice."
The motion to support legislation for an additional state court judge had come up at several previous meetings, but the board delayed a vote citing the need to consider the financial impact. To hire an additional judge, county officials said, would require additional sheriff's deputies to protect the courtroom and extra courtroom staff to process cases.
State Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro), chairman of the county's legislative delegation, said getting the legislation for the additional judge through the General Assembly before it adjourns for the year "will be close." He said the delegation is "working diligently" to make sure the legislation passes before the session ends April 3.
"Our state court is one of the busiest state courts in the state of Georgia," said Glanton. "The board is ultimately responsible for allocating the funding for this state court judge, so while we understood the need, it was important that we were collaborative with them [the BOC]. We would have preferred a more favorable timeline to make this happen, but we are working diligently to do get it done."
The board also unanimously approved several reorganization proposals Tuesday, including placing the Refuse Control department under the direction of the Clayton County Prison, and creating a new Senior Services department. Before Tuesday, Senior Services was a division of the Parks and Recreation department.
Mary Byrd, who will serve as director of the new Senior Services department, said that between 2000 and 2005, the county's senior population grew by 34 percent, according to a 2006 study conducted by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia. She said the new department would help the county focus specifically on one of its fastest-growing demographic groups.
"Based on the study, in 2030, we're looking at one in five people [in Clayton County] being over the age of 60, so we have to have a little more focus on our senior adult population," Byrd said. "People are living longer and really and truly, people want to stay in their own communities. We will be focusing more on working with the Atlanta Regional Commission, looking at our community, implementing programs, and conducting studies ... aimed at making our community a place that seniors can live for a lifetime."
Byrd said the department's Lifelong Communities Initiative, a partnership with the ARC, would focus on promoting housing and transportation options, encouraging healthy lifestyles, and expanding information and access to services for seniors.
The board also heard a first reading of a proposed ordinance to abolish the county's chief administrator position and replace it with a chief of staff. The chief-of-staff position, which was championed by Commissioner Michael Edmondson, spurred a recent lawsuit by Bell against the commission.
In January, Bell sued the board, claiming the powers of the chief of staff usurped his powers as chairman. On March 12, a superior court judge ruled the chief-of-staff position was created improperly.
Bell's attorney has threatened to take the board to court again if the ordinance to re-create the chief of staff is passed.
While the board did not discuss the ordinance in Tuesday's meeting, some citizens, and one elected official, urged the commission to avoid another lawsuit.
Michael Onyemenam, a former candidate for commission chairman, said abolishing the chief administrator, whom Bell would have the power to appoint, would be a bad idea.
"You do not change the rules of engagement during a time of someone's governance," he said. "His position could be changed by a special election or through legislation. In that way, it could be transparent ... while it may be nice to have it abolished right now, it is not wise."
Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin asked the board to consider the consequences of further litigation.
"In every family, there are arguments, debates, you name it," he said. "You must understand that when you make changes that you understand the implications of it. Whatever you want to do, it's fine with me, whether it's chief of staff [or] county administrator ... I don't want to see my county back in the newspaper about people suing each other in court again."
The board is scheduled to vote on the chief-of-staff ordinance during its next regular meeting on April 7.