The legal battle between the Clayton County Commission, and county Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin, may soon be over –– if a Clayton County Superior Court Judge signs off on an agreement reached by both sides this week.
Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, and Baskin’s attorney, William Stone, confirmed that an agreement was reached during a mediation session on Tuesday. They said they cannot, yet, divulge the details of the agreement, however, because it is still under review by Superior Court Judge Matthew O. Simmons.
Stone said, Thursday afternoon, that he expects Simmons will decide whether to accept, or reject, the agreement “any time now.”
Until Judge Simmons ordered mediation last month, Baskin and the county commission had been fighting, in court, over who controls vehicles used by the tax commissioner’s office, what pension plan Baskin’s employees will participate in, and how he is to produce regular tax-collection reports.
“The tax commissioner is happy with the agreement, and I’m guessing the Board of Commissioners is happy with it as well, since they signed off on it,” said Stone, during a telephone interview on Thursday.
It remains to be seen if the mediated agreement will put to rest a long-standing feud between Baskin and the county commission. The commission sets the budget for Baskin’s office, but his position is also one of a handful of “constitutional offices,” that were created under the Georgia Constitution, with the occupants chosen by voters in the county.
Stone said the mediation did not last long at all. He said he and Baskin sat in one room, while the county commissioners, and Interim County Attorney Jack Hancock sat in another.
The mediator, retired Fulton County Superior Court Judge Philip Etheridge, went back and forth between the two rooms, sharing each side’s proposals, requests and concerns with the other, according to Baskin’s attorney. “We began at 9 a.m., and I’d say by 1:30 p.m., we’d reached an agreement, and we spent the rest of the afternoon hammering out the fine details,” he said.
Stone also said: “I think everyone did a pretty good job of resolving this matter for the benefit of Clayton County and its taxpayers ... I feel each side came with a willingness to get this thing done.”
The two sides have been at odds since at least the summer of 2010, when county police arrested Baskin after he refused to allow county officials to take two cars which had been purchased from his office’s budgeted funds. At approximately the same time, Baskin had held a fund-raiser for someone who was running against a sitting county commissioner. Solicitor General Tasha Mosley later dropped the charges against Baskin.
County commissioners also tried to force employees in Baskin’s office to choose between participating in the state’s pension plan — which they could do as employees of a constitutional officer — or the county’s pension plan. Additionally, they argued that Baskin was not fulfilling his duties as tax commissioner, because he was not providing them with regular tax-collection reports.
Baskin has argued that he could not do the reports in a timely fashion, because his office lacked the computer software to do so.
The issue went to the courts last year, with the county asking Judge Simmons to order Baskin to submit weekly tax-collection reports to the county; allow commissioners to restrict take-home vehicle use by the tax commissioner’s office; and to forbid Baskin’s employees from simultaneously participating in both county and state pension plans.
Simmons, instead, chided both sides for what he saw as a waste of taxpayer money through a legal fight, and ordered the mediation.
But, Bell said, that is now all in the past, and the commissioners are expected to embrace a spirit of cooperation with Baskin. “We’re going to move forward, working with the tax commissioner, and the other constitutional officers in a manner that will best serve the citizens of our county,” he said.