A Clayton County Superior Court judge has ordered the county commission, and Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin, to sit down and talk out their differences, rather than waging a political power struggle through the court system.
Judge Matthew O. Simmons ordered Baskin and commissioners to enter mediation to settle a dispute over who controls the property of the tax commissioner’s office, employee pension funds, and weekly tax collection reports.
The battle between the two sides began, at least publicly, during the summer of 2010, when the county had Baskin arrested when he would not turn over two of his office’s cars.
The order confirms the direction to which the case appeared to be headed last week, when the judge chided both sides for fighting each other through litigation. Simmons’ order was issued Dec. 22, but it was not filed by the Superior Court clerk’s office until Tuesday.
“The court deems it advisable that the parties to this dispute attempt to resolve it without incurring additional expense,” Simmons’ order reads. “It is disappointing that the parties, as elected officials and stewards of the taxpayers’ monies, are litigating at taxpayer expense, a dispute that includes, ironically, an argument over literally how taxpayer money is spent.”
Representatives for Baskin and the county commission have until Jan. 5, to choose a mediator, and they must begin mediation on, or before, Feb. 10, Simmons’ order requires. The judge added that he will select a mediator, if the two sides cannot reach an agreement on who will serve in that role.
“If mediation does not settle this case, the parties shall notify the court, and the court will rule in the pending motion [the case],” the judge’s order said. Attorneys for both sides said, Tuesday, they had not yet seen the ruling, but each said their clients will participate in the mediation.
Interim County Attorney Jack Hancock said he had no further comment on the matter.
Baskin’s attorney, William S. Stone, said he was not surprised by the order.
“If money [in the county’s budget] is tight, then the money should be spent where it is helpful, instead of on some in-house political squabble,” he said. He noted that the county is paying the legal bills for its own attorney, as well as Baskin’s legal representation.
“Actually, I guess I should say the taxpayers are doing that,” he quickly added.
Stone said he does not have a total cost for his representation of Baskin, so far, but he has been on it for about 11 months.
County commissioners have asked Simmons to order Baskins to comply with a take-home vehicle policy that would essentially give them control over how he uses his vehicles. Stone says the county commissioners are overstepping their bounds, since the tax commissioner’s office is a constitutional office created by the Georgia Constitution.
The county commission also asked the judge to compel Baskin’s employees to chose between participating in a county pension plan, or a state pension plan, even though they qualify for both, and to force Baskin to submit weekly tax collection reports to the county.
Under Georgia law, Baskin is required to submit weekly reports to the county. His attorney said his client does not dispute that duty, but he argued that the county has not provided the tax commissioner’s office with the necessary technology to prepare those reports. According to Stone, the software purchased to run such reports was not set up to fully automate the process, meaning some parts of the weekly reports, such as accounting for tax payment checks, have to be done by hand.
Stone told the judge, last week, the amount of manpower needed to complete the reports prohibited the reports from being done in a week. On Tuesday, he explained that there is software which can fully automate the information for the reports, but the county has balked at the $500,000 price tag that comes with it.
Attorney Hancock counters that there is “no evidence” to show Baskin’s office cannot generate the reports in a timely manner, using the software it already has in hand.
Baskin’s attorney argued the case has less to do with judge Simmons’ findings, but more with alleged political retribution. Stone maintains the quarrel between Baskin and county commissioners began after the tax commissioner held a campaign fund-raiser in 2010 for Shegale Crute. Crute ran against Commissioner Sonna Singleton. Singleton won her re-election bid.
“This really doesn’t have anything to do with Mr. Baskin’s ability to take cars home overnight, or pension funds, or weekly reports,” Stone said. “It has to do with the fact that they want to remove Terry from office.”
Hancock vehemently denied there was any truth to Stone’s accusations about alleged political retribution when the tax commissioner’s attorney made that same claim during a court hearing last week.
“This is a matter of law,” Hancock told the judge at the time.