A county commissioners’ recent Facebook posting was fodder for a prolonged and sometimes testy discussion between Effingham County commissioners.
Commissioners met in executive session to discuss how to handle the situation, in which a commissioner leveled accusations toward another commissioner and the county administrator.
In a Facebook posting earlier this month, Commissioner Phil Kieffer alleged County Administrator David Crawley did not disclose to commissioners that a grant application was in the works for the possible purchase of the Ebenezer Crossing property and that he threw Commissioner Reggie Loper, then in a three-way campaign for his seat, “a bone.”
“There has been an accusation from one commissioner against the staff, regarding the Ebenezer property and how it was processed and how it was handled,” said Chairman Dusty Zeigler. “Since we do not have an ethics policy that has, for lack of a better way to put it, much teeth to it, we need to figure out how to move forward with this issue so it does not fester and become a problem in communications and relationships between the board and staff.”
Zeigler said it was his intention to have discussions on how the board would handle this issue in the upcoming weeks.
“I think it’s a serious accusation,” he said. “I think it’s damaging to reputations. I think it’s hurtful to individuals. It needs to be looked at and investigated. If we’re going to find somebody guilty of slander or whatever, there needs to be some sort of repercussions. On the other hand, if we’re asking for a resignation of staff or firing someone, we need to be prepared for it.”
During last Tuesday’s commissioners’ meeting, Kieffer said he had no idea a 50-page federal grant application had been submitted on behalf of the county when commissioners first voted on a letter of financial commitment. The letter of financial commitment was needed to complete the grant request.
Loper bristled at the accusation that he was involved in executive session discussions concerning the property.
“The only comment any commissioner ever made in all the meetings we had about this was (Chairman Zeigler) knew where the property was,” Loper said. “He did not need to go look at it. I did not talk. Your statement and your accusation was that I talked about it regularly in executive session, and that is not true.
“I never opened my mouth the first time in executive session, but then you come up here and say David and myself were doing something behind everybody’s backs.”
The state Department of Natural Resources had applied for the federal grant, which if awarded, would have gone toward the purchase of approximately 200 acres. That property includes the historic Ebenezer Crossing.
Commissioner Vera Jones said the board did not have all the information before taking its first vote on the matter.
“All the things we wound up getting right before the second vote, we should have had before the first vote,” she said. “I didn’t know the grant had been applied for. I didn’t know there was a grant already applied for. The way I understood things, it was mentioned to us briefly a few times in executive session. I can’t say it went further than anything like that. I didn’t know who the sellers were. I asked who the sellers were and I was told it was a hunting club.”
“I didn’t know how many pages there were, but I knew a grant had been sent in,” said Commissioner Bob Brantley. “I think we all knew that. We were asked for directions on several discussions.”
Crawley said commissioners signed off on the executive session minutes and those records show that on four separate occasions the purchase price and the county’s matching percentage of the grant were discussed.
“There’s a definite line,” he said. “Confusion over a grant process and accusations of corruption is where we’re at now. If there’s intent not to listen, that’s one thing. Everything was in there in those minutes. I got no questions. We hardly had any conversation. I remember specifically, my notes show, the grant process was going to move quickly. The state applied for the grant.
“Misunderstanding or if there is a communication problem is one thing,” Crawley added. “But accusations of corruption and collusion are totally different.”
Jones said commissioners do not get to keep copies of the executive session minutes but Zeigler defended how Crawley handles matters in closed meetings.
“One thing I do know David does do — and he does a good job of it in those meetings — is he always brings up the issue and always ask are there any more questions, what do you want me to do with this issue,” he said. “He has done that for the last four years I have been here, consistently, no question.
“I don’t know why there’s a question now. You say now, ‘We don’t know what’s in the minutes because we don’t get a copy of the minutes.’ Then how can you go propagating stuff that’s supposedly said and done if you don’t know what’s going on.”
Jones added she had evidence that other documents had been changed and has brought those matters to the attention of state and federal officials. She told the other commissioners that the district attorney has advised her she has a case in her dispute with the county over payment for a generator.
“I feel like I have seen documents that have been changed,” she said. “I have evidence of that. If someone wants to take me to court on this, then please do.”
Jones told Zeigler she had e-mailed this to him but Zeigler responded that he preferred having an open discussion about it.
“What I told you was if you want to discuss something with me, let’s discuss it in open session,” he said. “I don’t talk to you otherwise. If you bring it before this board, I’ll take a look at it. You’re trying to stir up the dust and make accusations and point fingers at everyone here, commissioners and staff. I’d like to know what’s going on. It seems to me there’s a witch hunt.”
Jones added she was “100 percent in favor of a comprehensive investigation” into the Ebenezer Crossing matter. Zeigler said he was willing to follow “what little bit of ethics policy” there is in the county’s human resources guidelines.
Commissioners approved releasing portions of the minutes from four different executive session meetings, all related to the Ebenezer Crossing issue. County attorney Eric Gotwalt recommended against releasing the full minutes.
“However, for property acquisition, what the code requires, once a proposed property acquisition is completed and abandoned then are no longer exempt from disclosure,” he said. “The statute does not say whether that includes minutes referring to that acquisition. But a liberal reading would say those minutes are subject to disclosure.”
Gotwalt also noted state law allows for a “name-clearing hearing” when accusations are made against a public employee.
“I think if one person feels they have a case of slander against another person, if they are propagating false statements, then I would encourage them to do that,” Zeigler said. “I think that’s what’s going on.”