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County hands over duties in lawsuit

CONYERS -- Representation for Rockdale County and Rockdale County Commission Chairman Richard Oden in an employment discrimination lawsuit will be handled through the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, according to the county attorney.

Rockdale County Attorney Qader Baig said the county will use ACCG's risk-sharing insurance program to represent them in the lawsuit filed last week by former county employee Holly Lafontaine. Beyond that, he declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The ACCG's program is called the Interlocal Risk Management Agency (IRMA), which allows county governments to pool their resources in an investment fund to provide property and liability coverage as needed, according to ACCG's Web site.

Lawyers representing Lafontaine filed the lawsuit in federal court in Atlanta on Aug. 6. The lawsuit alleges Oden based his selection of Erica Fatima as the county's new Public Affairs director on race. Lafontaine, who had worked in the Public Affairs department for eight years, including nine months as interim director, is white, while Fatima is black.

The lawsuit also alleges Lafontaine was fired in retaliation six days after she sent a letter to Oden and the Board of Commissioners that stated she believed she was a victim of discrimination in the selection process for a new Public Affairs director.

Fallout from the lawsuit spilled into public comment time during the BOC's Tuesday regular meeting. County resident Don Meyer attempted to talk about the lawsuit to the Board of Commissioners. He was supportive of Lafontaine's lawsuit and held up a placard with her mailing address, encouraging people to contribute to help defray legal expenses.

Baig approached County Clerk Jennifer Rutledge, who then advised the commissioners that the BOC should not allow Meyer to comment on the lawsuit based on Baig's legal advice.

That started a standoff between Meyer and Oden who attempted to excuse Meyer from the podium. At one point, a Rockdale County Sheriff's deputy was motioned to approach Meyer.

"Don't I have three minutes?" Meyer asked, referring to the time limit given for public comment. Oden allowed him to continue only if he did not discuss the Lafontaine lawsuit.

Meyer continued with about 45 seconds of silence.

Meyer said after the meeting that he was surprised that he was not allowed to discuss the lawsuit.

The episode raised the question of how public comment time has been used since Oden took office. The disclaimer on comment cards and in an announcement made prior to public comment mentions only "any issues that are currently going through the public hearing process" as subjects not to be discussed.

Also, legal counsel usually advises public officials to refrain from commenting on lawsuits, but not citizens.

Meyer admitted he was also directing his comments toward the television cameras that tape the BOC meetings for broadcast on Rockdale 23.

"I was successful in letting local residents know they can and must support Ms. Holly Lafontaine in her struggle to preserve fairness in our county hiring practices," Meyer said in an e-mail response to questions.

Commissioner Oz Nesbitt used his comments at the end of the meeting to address the use and abuse of public comment time. He said he was "a big advocate of the freedom of speech" and wanted citizens to have the chance to bring concerns to the commissioners.

However, he noted that comments heard over the past two years had become increasingly negative and "embarrassing." He chided a group of regulars, "you know who you are," who he said come to the BOC meetings and "repeatedly to bring division and set a negative tone to these meetings."

"It really tears me up to see folks come out here meeting after meeting only to seek points of negativity to bring out and point out," Nesbitt said. "Some of these folks only come when the cameras are rolling. Now we have the cameras rolling on Mondays and Tuesdays, they grandstand. They set the tone in this room, they set the tone no matter how much harmony and peace and unity each one of these board members talk about."

Nesbitt said public comment was "a privilege" that would indicate possible removal from the BOC agendas, which is not the first time it has been brought up. Rutledge has advised the commissioners in past meetings that there is no law on the books that requires them to have a time for public comment on the agenda.