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January 3, 2013 Issue

Sworn into service...
State ethics comm. has problems of its own
DNR to hold meeting in Wrens Jan. 7
Louisville councilman arrested

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Sworn into service...


Jefferson County Probate Judge Asholyn Lampp administers the oath of office to Mitchell McGraw, newly elected Jefferson County Commission Chairman. (Below) Glascock County Probate Judge Denise Dallas swears in newly elected commissioners Lori Boyen, Barbara Hadden and Audrey H. Chalker. (Below right) Glascock County’s Sheriff Dean Couch is sworn in again. Also taking their oaths are new Jefferson County Clerk of Superior Court Ann Durden and Tax Commissioner Nancy McGraw. Re-elected Jefferson County Board of Education member Bobby Butts holds his certificate of office.

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State ethics comm. has problems of its own

By Carol McLeod
Staff Writer

Local officials and candidates in Jefferson and Glascock counties owe more than $26,000 in fines for ethics violations, that is, according to a state website, www.ethics.ga.gov.

The website lists individuals who are in office, have been in office or who ran for office and have not filed a campaign contribution or similar report or who have filed late. Dates the reports were due are listed along with the fees assessed.


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Many of these people insist they filed the correct reports on time and, fortunately for them, have proof.

Suzanne Cross, the executive director of Constitutional Officers’ Association of Georgia, said Thursday, Dec. 27, the state office of the ethics commission is overworked, understaffed, underfunded and dealing with an old computer system.

Cross said when she realized no one was being notified they owed a fee, she began to check the list for the names of her members.

“I just went through and looked up all our members. That’s when I noticed there were some strange things. Duplications, for one,” she said.

Cross said there had been a big transition between the way these forms had been filed previously and the way they are filed now.

“All of this was done locally. Then everything had to be done by internet, they had to e-file,” she said, adding that after a few months, this was changed so candidates could paper file.

She said people who file hard copies by US mail should send their forms certified.

“Things do happen with the mail,” she said. “Things happen.”

Cross said one of her members mailed his forms on time and the packet sat in the Post Office in Macon for a period of time and his documents were received late.

“He had proof he filed on time,” she said. The fee was removed.

Cross said the ethics commission has very few staff members.

“When they went to paper file, they were inundated. Sometimes we would find errors with keying errors. We’ve been able to find some of those errors and correct that.

“Our members want to do what’s right. They will go through and do what they can to make sure they do the right things,” she said.

Cross said this year, the commission required five or six reports to be filed throughout the year. Candidates are not used to that as usually there are only two forms a year.

“Especially people who have been in office for years and years, they had someone to remind them,” she said. Typically, the city clerk or administrator reminded the officials and candidates. The paperwork was filed with the probate court. Often, someone in that office would remind candidates of the deadlines.

The clerk or other city official is no longer allowed to remind officials of the deadlines for these forms.

Additionally, candidates and officials cannot use any government computer to complete their forms or e-file them.

Cross said another thing hindering the commission is they don’t deal just with the candidates.

“They also deal with lobbyists and PACs. It’s a lot of people. It’s a lot of paperwork,” she said.

Cross said that most of her members did not have problems with the commission. Some of her members however not only found themselves on the list by mistake but, after correcting the mistake and having their names removed, found themselves on the list again later.

“The problem is the state has created this monster,” said Bartow City Councilman Dwayne Morris.

Morris has run for several offices over the years and currently fills a council position left vacant by the death of Fred Evans Jr. in March

“They passed this law and when they passed it, they offered very little information about how to follow the law and how to file the paperwork. I’ve already paid them one fine that I had,” Morris said.

“Here’s how that thing goes. When you file that thing on the computer, you have to tell them what your election year is. I put down 2012. I errorred. My election year was 2013. I called Ms. (Samantha) Jenkins (Commission Registrar) and she said that’s fine and she’d fix it but she hasn’t,” he said.

Morris said he has tried to correct the problem.

“The state says you owe this money but that office, they don’t even have the money in the budget to put stamps on the paperwork to send out that you owe the fines,” he said.

The councilman said the reason people get caught up in this is because there is very little information about what candidates and elected officials are supposed to do.

“When I ran for chairman of the commission, I mailed my paperwork to the state three times,” he said.

Morris said he was handed paperwork by the city manager.

“You have to fill that out and send it out. Nobody does that for you,” he said.

“Fooling with the website, you can’t figure that out. All mine stems from when I ran for mayor of Bartow. I don’t have any on there from when I qualified for Fred’s (Evans) seat. Or when I ran for the commission chairman’s,” Morris said.

“And the reason you see all those people on there is because it’s very complicated and there’s little instruction on what you do,” he added.

“It’s like pulling teeth, dealing with them people up there. It’s like pulling teeth. It’s painful. It’s the worst customer service. You’re basically on your own,” he said.

A check of the website shows quite a few candidates and officials on the list. Of the 10 people on this list who were interviewed, none had been aware of having a fee or of being on the list.

“I have not received anything from them about this. Nothing’s come to me, period. Every time I called up there, I could never get in touch with anyone who knew anything,” said one official who asked to remain anonymous.

Holly LaBerge is the director of what was known as the State Ethics Commission and is now known as Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

Several months ago, LaBerge said, “There’s something due every year, even if you leave office. You have to file a final report. It’s all in our code section and it’s all on our website.”

“The late fees are set by statute,” she said, adding the law changed Jan. 10, 2011.

“Filing fees and schedules are on our website,” she said.

Calls to her office this week went unreturned as of press time.

A recent visit to the agency’s website found a number of broken links.

Jefferson County’s election superintendent, Susan Gray, said the reports are two different ones.

“It’s the campaign contribution report and the financial disclosure report,” she said.

“Even if you don’t take any money from anyone, you still have to file it and claim zero. I tried to make the form available,” Gray said.

“I have to turn in the names and the offices they’re qualifying for after they’ve qualified,” she said, adding she’s never received a response from the ethics committee.

Another elected official interviewed who wanted to remain anonymous said three of the items listed as being unfiled under his name are campaign disclosure reports.

“And I filed the short form saying I didn’t have any campaign contributions,” he said.

“It would be easy for them to send an email to me that says I’m delinquent. I haven’t received any notice,” he said, echoing a sentiment of the other candidates and officials.

“It’s an incompetent group and that won’t be big news. That’s old news to folks involved,” he said.

Amy Henderson, a representative of the Georgia Municipal Association, said she is familiar with this problem.

“We have had issues in the past when some of our officials have been on this list when they have in fact filed. Some city officials can go on the website and post it themselves. When that first started there were a lot of issues with the commission’s website. Because they had to get a personal identification number and were not getting a PIN in time,” Henderson said.

“A lot of smaller communities, they’ve not raised anything, they haven’t spent anything. It used to be the city clerks were able to help them fill out the forms. They can no longer do that,” she said, adding candidates can still file paper documents.

“At first when the law changed they could file only electronically,” she said, but that was changed.

“The candidates can file by paper, they can mail in their forms. But if you’re a citizen wanting to get that information, you’re going to have to have internet access.”

Henderson said her agency tries to send out reminders to officials and are hoping for some tweaking of the law.

She also said some officials are on this list incorrectly.

“They have to send a letter through registered mail saying that this is owed. At every meeting we have, we just had a whole slew of meetings around the state this fall, whenever ethics is brought up it’s a hot-button topic,” she said.

Henderson said there are difficulties using the commission’s website.

She said candidates who raised no money and spend no money still have to file four times a year.

“And then those people who have done what they’re supposed to do and have difficulty with what’s being posted being accurate. When the law was first changed four years ago, that was our biggest problem. People who don’t have internet access and people who don’t use computers. Fortunately, they changed that to people who can file through the mail. And to be fair to the ethics committee, it is easier to file online. We have heard from people who say they’ve had difficulty accessing the ethics website and being sure their information went through,” Henderson said.

“We do what we can to get the word out to the elected officials. Then there are all those candidates who are not elected officials,” she said.

Henderson said she would like to see a reduction in the number of times candidates have to file.

“If you were able to file and say I didn’t raise any money; I didn’t spend any money - one time a year, sign an affidavit. That’s one thing we’ve talked about a lot, having that information available at the local level because that’s where that information matters.

“In the metro Atlanta area you’d probably find a lot of people who would say we like having this information online; because it’s easier to have this information online than fight traffic for an hour to get to the city hall. But in a smaller area, it’s probably easier to have this information at city hall than online, not that you can’t have it both,” she said.

“Initially when this all happened, we probably had hundreds of calls,” Henderson said, adding she didn’t think it was near that level now.

Another official, whose name was listed, then taken off the list, then placed on the list again, is angry.

She said she filed the reports she was supposed to file; but, the commission did not show they had received them.

“I sent it (the report) to the ethics committee; and, I got an acknowledgement,” she said.

She said she found the acknowledgement and was upset about having her name on this list.

“I can’t believe they would be so quick to put my name (or anyone else’s) on an ethics violation list,” she said. “They could at least contact the individual to make sure there wasn’t an error, as there was with me and others.”

Another person on the list, who did not want his name used, said he did not know about this and should have gotten some type of statement in the mail.

“Number one, it’s not legitimate,” he said. “I can show where I’ve submitted everything. You can assess fines all the day long, but if you’re not collecting them, what good is it?”

Matt Hodges, a Louisville city councilman, is another official on the list who said he had no idea he had been assessed a fee.

Hodges said he had copies of his documents and he had done everything correctly.

He pointed out the names on this list are elected officials and said the ethics committee should be conscientious in disclosing this information and follow up on it to ensure it’s correct.

Another official, Jefferson County’s outgoing solicitor Mickey Moses, is on the list. When contacted, Moses was surprised to find his name listed as not having filed his documents.

“I have complied with the law; and, I’ve got something somewhere that shows this,” he said last week.

“Every report that I was supposed to file, I have filed.

“I got confirmation in writing that says I filed it, July 1, 2012, at 9:40 a.m.,” he said.

A check of the website this week did not show Moses’ name on the list.

Another public official on this list is Rep. Mack Jackson (D-142).

“I’m trying to find out now why my name is on that list,” he said Monday, adding he was going through his files.

Cross advises all candidates, officials and former officials to periodically check the site for their names.

Anyone finding an error should contact the campaign finance commission, she said.

For those mailing their reports, Cross said these should be mailed certified. Those who e-file should receive a confirmation.

“Keep a copy of everything so you have proof,” Cross said.

“Don’t wait until the last minute. One of the things that does happen, if you’re really close to a deadline, the system is very slow. And it’s because everybody’s doing it,” she said.

She also suggests officials check the website for a schedule of filing dates and print that.

“Post it on your calendar so you’ll know when the reports are due,” she said. “Some reports, people don’t realize are due. Election years are different from non-election years. There are certain things that are very different from a non-election year. They’ve got all kinds of forms on the website. They’ve got a lot of information out there.”

Cross said the commission is understaffed, underfunded and overwhelmed.

The official whose name was on this list, then taken off and then popped up again isn’t so understanding.

“They need to take the website down if they can’t get it right,” she said. “They need to take it down until they can get it right. That’s not fair. It’s just not fair.”




DNR to hold meeting in Wrens Jan. 7

By Parish Howard
Editor/Publisher

Hunters and landowners who would like to see changes in Georgia hunting regulations will get a chance to have their voices heard in eight upcoming public meetings, the first of which will be held in Wrens.

“Public input is important and valuable,” said John Bowers, assistant chief of the Game Management Section. “We’re seeking input that simplifies regulations, encourages hunting participation, maximizes opportunity, and is biologically appropriate.”

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The first meeting will be held Jan. 7 at Wrens City Hall’s public meeting room at 7 p.m. A similar meeting will be held simultaneously in Richmond Hill. Meetings will also be held Jan. 8 in Rock Spring and Cumming, Jan. 9 in Columbus and Camilla and Jan. 10 in Clayton and Folkston.

Jefferson County’s own Ranger First Class Grant Matherly encourages locals with opinions on hunting regulations to come out and join the discussion.

“They’re mainly about hunting regulations, but people can ask about whatever they want. There may be a discussion about some of the changes they are already suggesting,” Matherly said. “They try to move these meetings around every year so that hunters and landowners from different parts of the state can come in and let their opinions be heard. I think there was one in Johnson County recently, but I believe it has been a while since there has been one in Jefferson or Glascock counties.”

The meetings, sponsored by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division, are designed to give the public and chance to provide input in the development process.

“Our legislators and the people who can make the changes, they need a forum where they can hear the opinions straight from the hunters and landowners,” Matherly said. “That’s what these meetings are for.”

Any participant may present data, make a statement or comment, or offer a viewpoint or argument, either orally or in writing. Organizers ask that statements be kept concise to permit everyone an opportunity to speak.

Participants are asked to register upon arrival and notify the registering official of their intent to give a statement. Those unable to attend a meeting may submit input either electronically or in written statement form. Input must be received by Jan. 18, 2013.

Written statements should be mailed to: GA DNR/Wildlife Resources Division/Game Management Section; Attn: John W. Bowers; 2070 U.S. Highway 278, S.E.; Social Circle, Georgia 30025.

Statements may be electronically submitted at: www.georgiawildlife.com/Hunting/SubmitComments

“One good example of the kind of change that has come from these meetings is the allowance for scopes on muzzleloaders,” Matherly said. “When they first instituted the muzzle loader hunting season, they said you couldn’t use scopes. But after hearing from enough hunters at these meetings they started to allow it.”

loader hunting season, they said you couldn’t use scopes. But after hearing from enough hunters at these meetings they started to allow it.”

In more recent years, Matherly said, the opinions shared at these meetings have helped get deer limits increased and allowed baiting.

Matherly explained that the meetings are mostly set up in a question answer format.

“We’ll have some biologists there, some people from our headquarters, some from our board, and me,” Matherly said. “The main thing people need to know is the more people that come to these meetings and let their feelings be known, the greater the chance that changes will be made. This is the easiest way to get things changed.”

Hunting regulation proposals will be available in April and will be considered by the Board of Natural Resources in May 2013.

For more information, visit www.georgiawildlife.com/Hunting/Meetings or contact Hunter Services at (770) 761-3045.




Louisville councilman arrested

By Carol McLeod
Staff Writer

Louisville City Councilman Larry Atkins was arrested Friday, Dec. 28, by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and charged with obstruction or hindering a person from making an emergency phone call and two counts of simple battery.

“Louisville police were originally called; and, we requested the county assist us and handle it,” Louisville Police Chief Jimmy Miller said Monday.

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Maj. Charles Gibbons with the JCSO said he was aware of the arrest but had not seen the incident report.

“I think it all stemmed from a family altercation,” he said. “Something to do with him and his ex-wife and her daughter, which is not his daughter.”

Gibbons said Atkins had made bond and been released.

A staffer with the JCSO said Atkins had been released on a property bond of $1,000.







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