CONYERS -- Rockdale County officials explained that a discussion that prompted a sudden turnaround to allow an application for a federal grant to fund hiring of deputies at the Sheriff's Office stayed within the requirements of Georgia's Open Meetings Act.
The grant proposal brought to the Board of Commissioners by Sheriff Jeff Wigington last month appeared to be dead. Commissioner Oz Nesbitt and Commission Chairman Richard Oden had refused to allow the grant on the BOC agenda for discussion at last Tuesday's meeting. The grant application deadline was Wednesday, May 25, and it appeared the sheriff's request was not going to be met.
During an executive session after the May 24 BOC meeting Commissioner JaNice Van Ness and Nesbitt came to an agreement on the grant and the paperwork was filed the next day.
Oden announced the grant agreement Thursday during a meeting with homeowners, which left several wondering how that was possible if the commissioners did not discuss it in an open meeting.
Van Ness said the grant came up during the closed-door session. Oden left the open session early to make a meeting and was not in attendance.
Van Ness, the BOC's only Republican, supported allowing the sheriff to present the grant proposal, but she was voted down each time by the other two board members.
"To me, it was an opportunity to talk to Oz one-on-one," she said. "He was worried about having to fund seven deputies in the fourth year (of the grant), and I said 'How about four?' and he agreed."
Van Ness added that County Attorney Qader Baig also attended the closed door meeting. When asked whether the grant discussion was appropriate, Baig advised the commissioners that it could proceed under personnel, one of the three primary topics the state's Open Meetings Act allows to be discussed in a closed-door meeting by government agencies.
The Open Meetings Act describes personnel matters excluded from public discussion as "deliberating upon the appointment, employment, compensation, hiring, disciplinary action or dismissal, or periodic evaluation or rating of a public officer or employee."
Van Ness said she felt talking about the grant application under the topic of personnel was appropriate in closed-door session. She also explained that a grant application did not require a vote by the BOC. The only formal vote taken is when the commissioners consider accepting funding if a grant is awarded.
Wigington also said that initial filing of a grant application does not require approval from the board. The disagreement came from allowing a discussion of the grant with the BOC.
Wigington said that with past county administrations he would meet with the chairman to discuss a grant application. The chairman, Wigington said, would then inform the other commissioners of the details in preparing for a vote on receiving grant funds, if they were awarded.
Wigington said that policy was changed with the current administration. He said Oden required grant applications to be heard by the full board as they are brought up. Alice Cintron, the county's grant administrator, offers grant updates to the BOC during work sessions.
Wigington said he discussed the grant application last month with Chief of Staff Greg Pridgeon, who informed the sheriff his department did not meet the grant's requirements after a review by Cintron. It was explained because of that, the grant would not be heard by the BOC.
Wigington disagreed and brought up the grant during public comment time at a BOC work session on May 17 and again on May 24 before the agreement was reached.