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Officials mull attorney's fees

COVINGTON - County commissioners are trying to decide whether to pay more than $6,000 in attorney's fees for work that was not authorized by the Board of Commissioners.

According to Commissioner J.C. Henderson, $6,572.50 has been billed in attorney's fees for work the County Attorney's Office did to create a nonprofit organization to operate the new Nelson Heights Community Center on Laseter Street.

Henderson said Chairman Kathy Morgan made an administrative decision not to pay the fees, and he believes the attorneys should be paid for those services.

Morgan said she did not approve payment because she could find no record of the formation of the nonprofit organization being approved by the Board of Commissioners, either in the county minutes or through consultation with past board members.

Morgan said that Craig was not sure if the board had approved the work and was apparently working at the behest of Henderson.

"Why would he work on it without board approval?" asked Commissioner Earnest Simmons during Tuesday night's Board of Commissioners meeting.

"I have absolutely no idea," Morgan replied.

But Henderson said he was within his rights to ask the county attorney to do the work without going to the board.

"If there's a legal request from a commissioner for the attorney to do something within a district, it has always been done," he said.

"If this was done during the prior administration, it would have been paid," he said, adding that perhaps there needs to be a policy adopted outlining the authority of individual commissioners.

But Commissioner Mort Ewing said it's clear commissioners "do not have individual authority to obligate the board for county funds."

Ewing said that he's called the County Attorney's Office for legal opinions on issues that have come before the board, but has never requested work that should require board approval, such as the formation of a nonprofit organization.

Morgan said that she never questions a commissioner's right to call the attorney for a legal opinion, but that anything else must come before the board.

Henderson argued that the county attorney serves at the pleasure of the Board of Commissioners, but Morgan said that means the entire board, not each individual commissioner.

If that were the case, "Anybody could go to a commissioner and ask them to go to the county attorney to get work done at the county's expense," she said.

Commissioner Tim Fleming asked why administrators didn't stop the work from continuing once they discovered it.

Morgan responded that Craig agreed to continue to do the work pro bono with the intent of collecting the fees later from the nonprofit organization.

Fleming said regardless if commissioners agree or disagree on whether the nonprofit organization should have been formed, the attorney's office should be paid.

"To say we're not going to pay when the administration knew they were doing this work is absurd to me," he said.

The board agreed to table the issue until a later date.

Earlier this month, commissioners also tabled a request by Henderson to pay expenditures for the center totaling $55,240 - money that he said had already been appropriated in the fiscal year 2009 budget.

The expenditures included $37,000 for a director's salary and benefits, $6,240 for a part-time employee's salary, $7,000 for utilities, $2,000 for food and snacks, and $2,500 for a petty cash fund.

But Morgan said commissioners who served when the project was approved as part of the 2005 SPLOST indicated to her the building was to be used as a community meeting place, similar to the Almon and Mansfield community centers, with any additional uses to be discussed at a later time.

If a 501(c)(3) has been formed, the board of directors should come before the board with a business plan, she said.

"The Board of Commissioners has approved the building in Nelson Heights. It has not approved the management or use of the building," Morgan said Wednesday. "I think that's part of the frustration Commissioner Henderson has. He feels that is a decision that can be made by the District 4 commissioner, but it's not. It's the property of Newton County taxpayers and needs the approval of the board, as (does) any other facility the county has."