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Clayton commissioners accused of open-meetings violation

The Georgia Attorney General's office will investigate allegations that three members of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners recently violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act, meeting, out of public view, to discuss the county's fiscal year 2012 budget, a spokesperson for the office has confirmed.

Commission Vice Chairman Wole Ralph, along with commissioners, Sonna Singleton and Gail Hambrick, allegedly used a recess during a special called meeting on June 29, to hold secret talks on what to do with the budget, according to a July 5 complaint filed with the Attorney General's office Rex resident, Rosa Barbee. She has asked for an investigation of the three commissioners.

Lauren Kane, a spokesperson for Attorney General Sam Olens, confirmed the state's top prosecutor's office has received Barbee's complaint, and that it will look into it, just as it would any other complaint.

"We look into every complaint that we receive," Kane said. "We have a mediation team, and they are tasked with investigating, and gathering information on any complaint that we receive."

If the three commissioners violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act, they may not be facing the most severe of crimes. Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson said violating the act would only constitute a misdemeanor offense.

Ralph, Singleton and Hambrick are accused of allegedly ignoring a warning from Lawson that going into an unadvertised, closed-door discussion on the budget would constitute of a violation of state law, according to the complaint.

"Very early in the proceedings, while in discussion, Commissioner Wole Ralph suddenly announced that the Board of Commissioners needed to leave the meeting for a closed doors discussion," the complaint states. "At this point, the Clayton County DA told them they could not do this, as they would be in violation of the Georgia Open Meetings Act.

"Ignoring the DA and the law, Mr. Ralph stood up and retreated with Commissioner [Sonna] Singleton and Commissioner Gail Hambrick, to a closed doors meeting."

The complaint points out that Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell and Commissioner Michael Edmondson did not leave the open meeting with them, and, therefore, did not participate in the alleged closed-door budget discussion.

Minutes for the called meeting on July 29, appear to confirm the alleged events — at least those that occurred in the public meeting chambers — as outlined Barbee, both in her complaint, and during a telephone interview.

The yet-to-be-official meeting minutes show that Ralph and Singleton had been critical of Bell during the meeting, even going so far as to tell the commission chairman to "own his own budget," before Ralph eventually made a motion to increase the county's millage rate 5 mills. The minutes show the recommendation caused an uproar in the audience, requiring Bell to call for order to be restored.

"It was crazy," said Barbee, in a telephone interview on Friday.

The crux of Barbee's complaint, however, is what happened in the middle of the budget discussion. The minutes show that Ralph, in the middle of the discussion, made a motion for a "recess," and that Singleton seconded it.

The minutes then show that Ralph, Singleton and Hambrick voted for the recess, while Bell and Edmondson did not participate in the vote. The record of the meeting shows that Bell asked the commissioners to give a reason for the recess, to which "Vice Chairman Ralph responded that the board did not need a purpose."

The minutes confirm that Lawson did, indeed, warn commissioners that "in open records, there has to be a legal reason to recess." The minutes do not show any of the commissioners explaining a purpose for going into the recess, until the public meeting resumed 15 minutes later.

At that point, according to the minutes, "Vice Chairman Ralph informed the chairman [Bell] that the reason for the recess was to further discuss the budget."

It was after the meeting resumed that Ralph made the motion to adopt the budget, with the millage rate increase, according to the meeting minutes. The result of the millage rate increase, according to the minutes, was that proposed furlough days were removed from the budget, and it passed a 3-2 vote. Bell and Edmondson were opposed, the meeting record shows.

On Friday, Lawson said there are only three reasons a government body can go into executive session: the discussion of personnel matters; to discuss litigation, and to discuss anticipated real estate purchases.

"They can't just nilly-willy go into recess whenever they feel like it," the district attorney said.

Ralph, Singleton and Hambrick denied the complaint against them, however.

Initially, Ralph denied any budget discussions, until it was pointed out that his statement contradicted what he said in the minutes from the meeting. He then said he only met with Bell, to discuss the possibility of postponing a vote on the budget until June 30, so commissioners could gather more information on the proposed budget.

"I did not have any conversations with Commissioner Singleton about the budget, nor did I have a conversation with Commissioner Hambrick during the recess," Ralph emphatically said during a telephone interview.

Bell could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Hambrick said she met with one of her constituents during the recess, because the individual had been waiting to speak with her at the meeting. She said she could not remember the constituent's name on Friday. She stressed that she deliberately avoided contact with Ralph and Singleton during the recess.

"I made sure I did not go close to them during the recess, because I knew there would be questions raised, if I did that, after the warning we received from the district attorney," Hambrick said. She said she was not aware of Barbee's complaint.

Similarly, Singleton said she spent the entire recess "standing in front of my mailbox [at the commission's office], reading my mail," and did not meet with other commissioners. She initially laughed about the complaint, and asked if it was "a joke." She added: "I think that's crazy ...

"If people would spend the same amount of time they put into trying to make all of these allegations of wrongdoing, into trying to make the county better, then this community could be a much better place."

Singleton called Barbee a "sore loser," alluding to the fact that Barbee ran against, and lost to, the commissioner last year in the Commission District 1 primary election.

Singleton said she believes she would be vindicated during an investigation the Attorney General's office. "I'm very confident that they will find that I did nothing wrong," she said. "I'll gladly talk to them about it, and I'll tell them exactly what I just told you."