Georgia Politics, Campaigns & Elections for September 7, 2012


Georgia Politics, Campaigns & Elections for September 7, 2012

Daisy (left, female) and Boots (right, male) are three month-old, eight pound puppies thought to be a Pug/Rat Terrier mix, and are available for adoption today from Walton County Animal Shelter. They are owner-surrenders, which means there is no guaranteed hold time for them. Two of their siblings were turned in last week as well.

A quick reminder that today is “Black Friday” at the Gwinnett County Animal Shelter, where any dog or cat that is black or majority black may be adopted for $30 cash, instead of the usual $90 total for adoption plus vetting fees.

This beautiful puppy was euthanized yesterday because of the shortage of space in the Gwinnett County puppy pod. We’re in the worst time of the year for most public shelter, where intake spikes the highest, resulting in more euthanasia.

Georgia Politics, Campaigns & Elections

If my math is correct, we are now 60 days from the 2012 General Election. You have until October 9th to register to vote in order to be eligible to cast a ballot for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, and for Chuck Eaton as Public Service Commissioner.

“As Georgians and citizens of the United States of America, we have no more solemn honor than our privilege to cast a vote,” said Kemp. “As Georgias chief elections officer, I want to make sure that every Georgian has the opportunity to register to vote and make their voice heard at the poll.”

Visit the Secretary of State’s website for more information on registering to vote.

The nonpartisan TurboVote is offering students at North Georgia College text and email reminders of upcoming elections.

The registration on TurboVote takes less than five minutes and is quite user friendly. Once registered, TurboVote displays a countdown to the next election as well as the number of days remaining to submit an absentee ballot.

North Georgia has joined TurboVote with the support of its American Democracy Project and Political Science Student Association. Both groups are enthusiastic about the possibilities it will open up for the faculty and students.

“We are the only university in Georgia that has partnered with them and join the ranks of such schools as University of Florida, UNC, Columbia, Harvard and many others (45 in all) across the nation,” said North Georgia History professor Dr. Renee Bricker, who is helping promote the effort along with Dr. Carl Cavalli, professor of Political Science.

The Russell Library at UGA is promoting student voting with its “Ready, Steady, Vote!” program.

“We thought that this is a good time to plan some programs that connect into our mission, what we collect, the kinds of programming that we do, but also connect to politics and sort of get citizens in the mindset of election season and ready to vote,” Levinson said. “We picked three films that represent a few different time periods, and we’re going to have professors comment on those. The professors will introduce the film and give it a little bit of context.”

The series community forums grew out of Russell Forum for Civic Life in Georgia which is the primary outreach program that the Russell Library offers.

Following along with the political theme, the library will also be holding a “Debate Watch,” which they also did for the 2008 election.

“This year we picked to host a debate watch for the town hall style debate because we thought that would be an interesting format. That’s where everyday citizens are selected to ask the candidates questions,” Levinson said. “We’ll have Jamie Carson, who’s a professor in political science, come over and introduce the debate and maybe do a little question and answer before to get people in the mindset and then we’ll watch the debate together and just kind of see what happens.”

The City of Columbus is promoting voter registration and voting by making it easier to obtain a Georgia Voter Id card.

For the next three Saturdays, personnel from Boren’s office will have a station at the main public library on Macon Road to allow voters to apply for one of the cards, if they need one. Voters who already have a state ID card or driver’s license cannot get a voter ID card, nor do they need one.

The initiative also offers voters a chance to check their registration status, which may have lapsed without their knowledge.

“Many voters don’t realize that if they have not voted in several election cycles — like 6-8 years — they are listed as ‘dormant’ on our roles and won’t be allowed to vote,” Boren said, adding that the dormant status can’t be corrected Election Day, but it can in advance.

The Ten Commandments are now posted in the Georgia State Capitol as part of a display of historic documents described as the “Foundations of American Law and Government.”

Over the past decade, similar displays have been embroiled in legal challenges, including one that was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. A challenge could come here, too, although legislators passed a law earlier this year allowing the display.

“I’m not concerned if anyone will take offense,” said state Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, who sponsored the bill (HB 766) allowing it. “If they don’t want to look at it, they don’t have to look at it.”

Georgia leaders said they were confident the display is legal. Opponents were not so sure.

“We oppose such displays because usually the reason they’re putting them up is solely to display the Ten Commandments,” said Maggie Garrett, legislative director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “We oppose the government putting up religious symbols … that create division rather than unity.”

The State Attorney General’s Office has not issued a formal legal opinion on the display, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Sam Olens said. But Benton said he consulted with Olens’ office on the amended law’s wording — which [Georgia Capitol Museum director Matt] Frilingos mentioned when he was asked why the display went up now.

No word on whether the Ten Commandments will be added to the Senate Rules, and if so whether violations would be punishable by the Senate Ethics Committee or left to the Lord in his infinite wisdom and mercy. Then again, the state seal, which says, “Wisdom, Justice, Moderation” is plastered all over the building, but does not appear to have caused an increase in those qualities.

Following up on yesterday’s review of shenanigans at the Gwinnett County Commission, we move to the Savannah City Council and City Manager.

Last year, Attorney General Sam Olens traveled to Savannah to meet with the city council about citizen complaints that the council was violating the Open Meetings Act.

Olens’ office has received complaints from Savannah residents that makes it clear citizens believe the city is making its decisions behind closed doors and the public cannot learn about what is happening.

“Good governments require that the government comply with the Sunshine Law,” Olens said. “You always err on the side of good government and transparency.”

Mayor Otis Johnson said the guidance from Olens’ office will reshape city operations and make Savannah a model of compliance for the state. Johnson almost immediately notified City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney to schedule a follow-up workshop to adjust procedures, particularly for how aldermen interact with each other.

To Olens, Johnson assured there was no intentional attempt to violate the law when council this year scheduled meetings and conducted candidate interviews during its search for a city manager.

Olens’ office determined that city officials three times violated Open Meetings Law, but chose not to pursue penalties in part because council relied on advice from City Attorney James Blackburn.

A little over a year later, and it appears the City Council is backsliding on its born-again commitment to transparency and compliance with the law.

Members of the Savannah City Council met in a hastily called meeting Sunday afternoon — with no advance public notice — to discuss a violent August incident in Ellis Square.

That meeting violated the state’s Open Meetings law, according to David Hudson, legal counsel for the First Amendment Foundation.

Though all council members were invited, only five attended. That is still a majority of council. Because the invitation was extended to all members, a public notice should have been issued. The city manager copied the public information office, her deputy assistant and her two assistant city managers but did not copy the Clerk of Council’s Office, which normally initiates public meetings notices.

“When a quorum meets by prior arrangement to discuss or receive information about a public matter, it is a meeting under the law and to be lawful must be preceded by notice and the public admitted,” Hudson wrote in an email Tuesday.

The Savannah Morning News editorial board is not amused.

The second issue causing perturbation to the SMN editorial board is problems in the City purchasing procedures.

What is going on inside the city’s purchasing department?

As this newspaper reported Saturday, Mayor Edna Jackson and city council members discussed a hastily pulled bid that could have gotten the city in hot water in court.

Apparently, the city issued a request for proposals from companies interested in getting a city contract. The project wasn’t mentioned publicly.

Within the request, however, the city demanded that a specific business not be included in any proposal.

In other words, the city was blacklisting a business.

By name. In writing.

Governments have leeway in setting the criteria for bidders who want the public’s business. But there are laws against discrimination. If one of those laws are violated, a government opens itself up to a potential lawsuit.

Also at last Friday’s meeting, it was revealed that the city’s purchasing department has been in shambles, with anywhere from 100 to 400 invoices from vendors being paid late.

It’s not a matter of the city not having the money to pay its bills. Instead, it appears to be a matter of the purchasing department not having its act together, in part because of massive staff changes that occurred earlier this year.

That’s no excuse. It’s also inexcusable that the city’s bid process was tainted to this extent in this case.

Third on the SMN’s airing of the grievances is management issues involving City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney.

The public reprimand that elected officials gave City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney for a long list a management problems was a deserved one.

Friday’s five-hour, specially called meeting was necessary to clear the air, set things straight and stop the erosion of public confidence in City Hall.

Kudos to Mayor Edna Jackson for holding it.

Ms. Small-Toney declined to make a statement. But the city’s top employee did say the right thing: “Thank you mayor and council for this opportunity.”

Mayor Jackson has proudly trumpeted the fact that city government here is on solid financial footing. Yet behind these glowing pronouncements, the city has been late in paying its bills. Some 106 invoices — and perhaps as many as 400 — have not been paid in at least 45 days in some cases.

Earlier this week, this newspaper submitted an Open Records request for memos and documents related to problems in the city’s purchasing department. City officials have yet to turn over that information. However, only in the last few days, after long work sessions and relaxed rules for payment, has the backlog been cleared.

Ms. Small-Toney tried to blame the problem on the transition to a new computer system in October 2011. However, it was revealed Friday that city administrators took a broom to the entire purchasing department earlier this year. Five employees have either been fired, forcibly reassigned or have retired or resigned since April.

When bills aren’t paid on time, it’s unprofessional. It hurts the city’s image, it hurts companies that do business with the city and it hurts Mayor Jackson’s credibility.

This revelation came on the heels of two other well-reported problems inside city government — the city’s hiring of an emergency management director who submitted a falsified resume and the city manager’s inability to properly document her travel expenses.

The emergency management director whose resume was falsified appears to have known the City Manager for eight years prior to his being hired.

The Savannah Morning News … questioned Emergency Management Director Ben Johnson about inconsistencies in his background – such as certifications he initially said he earned but now says he hopes to get, and educational degrees he has been trying to complete for more than two years. [City Manager] Small-Toney emailed City Council members Monday night to defend Johnson’s qualifications.

She also explained that she and Johnson have known each other since at least 2003, and that it was that experience and the quality of his work that led to the decision to hire him.

Johnson on Monday initially stated he had known the city manager since applying for the Savannah job in 2010, but amended his answer when presented information that the two were graduates of the same executive leadership class in 2003. Small-Toney confirms that date in her letter to council.

A review of Johnson’s resume and city application raises questions about some of his qualifications.

Among the issues: In a resume Johnson provided to the city in July 2012, he states he earned certification as a Georgia certified emergency manager in June. That resume was provided to the Morning News in July as part of a public records request.

Georgia’s Emergency Management Agency, which conducts the training and certifies emergency managers, shows that Johnson participated only in a 2010 class that provided a 10-hour overview of GEMA’s functions.

“I’ve checked with our training office and we find no record of a Georgia-certified emergency management course completion by a Ben Johnson,” said Ken Davis, spokesman for GEMA.

The certification program, Davis explained, is a lengthy process.

Last week, Johnson either resigned or been fired but Small-Toney will head the effort to find a replacement and the city appears to now be current in paying its vendors.

Finally, last month questions were raised about the legitimacy of some expenses for which City Manager Small-Toney was reimbursed.

 This newspaper, [the Savannah Morning News] reported Sunday that the cost for Ms. Small-Toney’s travel from November 2010 to April 2012 was $19,205. No one is questioning whether her trips were legitimate. There are plenty of red flags, however, about how she accounted for her expenses.

Newspaper accounts show that during that 18-month period from late 2010 through April of this year, the city manager was reimbursed without providing final receipts. Instead, she showed printouts of booking confirmations and her online checking account statements.

That’s insufficient. While it doesn’t mean she padded expenses, it leaves the door open to the possibility. That’s why rules exist to keep everything on the up and up.

Reports showed she routinely submitted expense reports two, three and five months late. In one big no-no, she billed taxpayers $254 for an extra night’s stay at a National Forum for Black Public Administrators in April in Virginia Beach, Va. She apparently wanted to play in a golf tournament the day after the conference ended.

The city allows employees to attend such conferences as part of their professional development. But that shouldn’t mean a free vacation on the public’s dime.

Documents for other trips showed Ms. Small-Toney was reimbursed for expenses that were supposed to be covered by the $35-per-day allowance she received. You don’t need an accounting degree to know that’s improper. Besides, she’s paid an annual salary of $194,000. Didn’t she think it would look petty to collect her per diem and also seek reimbursement for $6 in Post-it notes?

Those practices violate the city’s travel policy for its 2,800 employees, including requirements that actual receipts be submitted for reimbursement and that travel reports be submitted five days after each trip.

The city manager fired back in an Op-Ed headlined “I challenge anyone who says expenses weren’t legitimate.”

I take responsibility for not filing expense reports in a timely enough manner. When I travel, generally I am traveling alone and am extremely busy. When I return to Savannah, my schedule is even more hectic, with piles of work awaiting my attention.

Immediately turning in expense receipts has not always been at the top of my priority list. As a result, I have neglected to turn in expense reports within the five days spelled out in our Travel Policy. I will point out, however, that this is an internal policy and not a city ordinance. But while is it not the law, it is important that all city employees follow the same set of city policies, including myself. Thus, I pledge to be more vigilant in turning in expense reports within five days of returning. This has allowed me to reevaluate the process of turning my receipts in on time.

Regarding reimbursement of $6 for Post-it notes, the article said my reimbursement was not allowed because such expenses are covered by the per diem. This is not true. There was never a charge for Post-it notes made by me. The itemized invoice does show “Post It. No. #####.” My assistant called the clerk in the gift shop where the purchase was made and was told today that this is an SKU code for a beverage or other snack.

Regarding the acceptance of a per diem and then billing the city for meals, the cost of food was not reimbursed twice for the same expense, so this is not true. I have dietary restrictions due to a diagnosed medical condition.

As an Assistant City Manager, the former City Manager and Finance Director worked out a procedure with my assistant for me to get reimbursed for the difference above the per diem amount so I could meet my special dietary needs while traveling on city business. For example, if my per diem for a trip totaled $140 ($35 per day times 4 days) and the actual cost for meals was $200, I would be reimbursed the $60 difference. Conversely, if the actual cost for meals totaled $100 then I would return $40 to the city.

I do pledge to improve the timeliness of expense reporting. But I would challenge anyone who asserts that any city-funded expense I have made has not been for the purpose of performing my duties as City Manager, representing the city in meetings on all levels, bringing back new ideas and initiatives to advance the priorities of the City Council and to lead our organization to a higher level of city services for our community.

In response the City Council called for revisions to the travel reimbursement policies. The staff’s first rewrite was not quite up to snuff.

Among [Council members’] concerns: [Small-Toney’s] proposed travel policy would have allowed handwritten notes for lost receipts, a memo on the Purchasing Department they considered too severe in its potential discipline to staff, and her announcement that she wanted to hire an interim bureau chief for economic development even though the job has been open 18 months.

Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler is refusing to follow federal rules that would require the state to pay unemployment benefits to some seasonally-unemployed Georgians, such as teachers and bus drivers for private organizations.

“This is really a states’ rights issue. The administration is really over-stepping their bounds,” Butler said Thursday. “We will not back down from something we feel right about. We have the authority to write laws when it comes to unemployment.”

Butler and Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, who concurs with the Labor commissioner’s interpretation, vow to carry the fight to Washington.

The U.S. Department of Labor is “reviewing Georgia’s new legal position,” a spokesman said without elaboration. Washington officials earlier threatened to cut millions of dollars sent annually to Georgia to administer the unemployment program unless the state relented and resumed the payments.

U.S. labor officials have threatened to slash some or all of the money Georgia gets to cover administrative costs of the unemployment benefits program. That amount was $72 million in fiscal 2011.

“It would be very irresponsible for them to do that,” Butler said. “It’s a pretty serious issue if the states just let the federal government tell us what to do all the time. We’re not trying to pick a fight here. We’re just trying to govern Georgia the way Georgians want us to govern.”

Georgia owes Washington roughly $740 million for jobless assistance borrowed during the recession.

The President and CEO of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, Jim Maran, has announced his retirement at the end of the year.

Gwinnett County attorney Chris McClurg, who came in fourth in the July election for an open seat on Gwinnett County Superior Court, is appealing a decision regarding the county’s garbage collection plan to the Georgia Supreme Court.

“They have foreclosed on people’s property” because of the garbage bill, McClurg said….

“The real upside (for homeowners) is if the Supreme Court overturns the ordinance, there’s going to be a big problem in Gwinnett,” McClurg said, adding that he would immediately file a class action lawsuit seeking a refund plus interest for taxpayers.

Ends & Pieces

The Georgia Ports Authority set new records for cargo throughput in total tonnage, breakbulk and automotive for Fiscal Year 2012.

“Strong growth in breakbulk and auto cargoes complemented record volumes in total tonnage and container traffic,” [Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Curtis J.] Foltz said. “Georgia’s deepwater ports continued to attract additional cargo, and sustain and create jobs throughout this region.”

Amid higher cargo numbers across an array of global markets, the Port of Savannah now hosts the most shipping services of any port on the East Coast.

Georgia’s deepwater ports and inland barge terminals support more than 352,000 jobs throughout the state annually and contribute $18.5 billion in income, $66.9 billion in revenue and $2.5 billion in state and local taxes to Georgia’s economy. The Port of Savannah was the second busiest U.S. container port for the export of American goods by tonnage in FY2011. It also handled 8.7 percent of the U.S. containerized cargo volume and 12.5 percent of all U.S. containerized exports in FY2011.

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