JONESBORO Controversy is beginning to swirl around the Clayton County Board of Commissioners’ decision to replace a member of the Clayton County Water Authority board rather than re-appoint her Tuesday night.
On the surface, the vote on whether to re-appoint Sylvia Wright to the Water Authority board may have seemed like a routine housekeeping measure included with the reconsideration of appointments to several other boards.
However, the Commission voted to appoint Elizabeth Armstrong to the seat by a 3-2 vote rather than reaffirm Wright’s appointment. Commissioners Sonna Singleton and Gail Hambrick voted against Armstrong’s appointment.
Now, the decision is becoming mired in controversy. Clayton County NAACP President Synamon Baldwin is calling the decision to replace Wright with Armstrong “illegal” and is blasting the Commission for what she sees as retaliation against supporters of former Commissioner Wole Ralph. It was Ralph who got Wright nominated and appointed to the Water Authority board last November.
“This removal seems to be another vindictive action,” Baldwin wrote in an email to NAACP members Wednesday.
The issue with Wright’s appointment is much more complex than it appears on the surface.
It is set against a backdrop that includes a legal challenge from county prosecutors over several appointments, Wright’s objection to a company seeking a Water Authority contract and opposition to decisions made by the previous Commission.
However, the key issue is the legal matter. Wright’s appointment was one of several Commission decisions District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson asked Superior Court Judge Geronda Carter to throw out Dec. 31 because the votes had not been publicly advertised on meeting agendas.
In court documents, Lawson argued those decisions were reached in violation of Georgia’s Open Meetings Act and should therefore be deemed invalid. The case is still pending and the county’s deadline to respond to Lawson’s request has been pushed back three times. The current deadline is Friday.
During this week’s Commission meeting, interim County Attorney Jack Hancock said commissioners had agreed by consensus in an executive session to reconsider the appointments as part of a settlement deal in the case.
Lawson declined to comment on the matter Thursday because of ongoing negotiations.
Then there is the matter of whether Wright was targeted because she opposed a last-minute push to hire a company allegedly tied to the county’s financial advisor at a recent Water Authority board meeting.
Board member Sofia Haynes said another member of the Water Authority board told colleagues the Commission wanted investment bank Piper Jaffray hired to handle bond refinancing rather than the company which scored the highest in an evaluation of bidders. Piper Jaffray was not awarded the contract, Haynes said.
She added that she wanted to believe the reconsideration of Wright’s appointment was not an act of retaliation.
Turner and Commissioner Shana Rooks said the decision to appoint Armstrong to the Water Authority Board instead of re-appointing Wright was not about retaliation.
“There’s no Slick Willy side deals going on,” Turner said.
Rooks added that she has known Armstrong for a while and knew more about her than Wright.
“Mrs. Armstrong has been a longtime community servant to Clayton County,” Rooks said. “When I joined the Clayton County NAACP, she was a member there. She was a president of the Clayton County Democratic Party and she is my constituent. I know nothing of Mrs. Wright, and since it was Mr. Ralph’s selection of her, I felt it was a selection for my district. I was happy to nominate Mrs. Armstrong.”
“I choose to believe your decision to reconsider Mrs. Wright’s appointment is not because she would not support Piper Jaffray,” Haynes told commissioners.
Turner denied the Commission tried to influence the Water Authority board’s decision, saying the board “did not come to anybody and say we want any particular firm hired.”
Adding on to all of that is the push back against former commissioners, which Baldwin referenced in her email to NAACP members.
Ralph and former Chairman Eldrin Bell were defeated in their re-election campaigns last year. In January, a new version of the Commission voted to erase a previous decision by the governing body and stripped Ralph’s name from the new county recreation center in Lovejoy. It also voted to fire County Manager Wade Starr after only a year and a half in the position. His position was also abolished.