COVINGTON -- Information is incomplete on how much in passport processing fees has been collected by the Newton County Superior Court Clerk's Office. The Citizen filed an Open Records request with Superior Court Clerk Linda Hays on April 9 requesting the number of passports processed per year during the last five years and the amount of fees collected during that time. Hays responded that she would provide that information no later than April 20. To date, the Citizen has not received the information from Hays.
The Citizen also filed an Open Records request with Newton County for any records in the county's possession related to passport processing fees collected by the Superior Court Clerk's Office for the past five years as well as Hays' annual salary.
Initially, County Manager John Middleton responded that "OCGA provides no direction for recording or disbursement of passport fees. The United States of America (Federal Government) does require that records are retained by the passport acceptance agent -- not the county or any other local jurisdiction."
Following a follow-up email by the Citizen, asking who passport fee checks are made out to, and noting that if made out to the county, there should be a record of that, Middleton stated that county staff would be working on the request.
The resulting report shows passport fees collected from December 2007 through December 2008. The reporting then becomes more sporadic, with reporting for only the months of January, April and May 2009 and January 2010. Asked to provide clarity on why there were gaps of time in the report, Middleton stated, "We have fully complied with the Newton Citizen's open record request and provided reports and information as requested. If we did not handle the receipting or disbursement of passport fees it would not be reflected in our records."
At least a total of $55,025 has been collected in passport fees during the past five years, based on the documentation provided by the county. How that money has been spent is unclear, as Hays has not responded to several requests by the Citizen to be interviewed and stated that she would not provide that information in response to the Citizen's Open Records request.
In a letter sent to the Citizen on April 12, Hays cites a section of Georgia law defining public records as those prepared and maintained or received in the course of the operation of a public office or agency, or items received or maintained by a private person or entity on behalf of a public office or agency.
"My personal records regarding the expenditure of passport processing fees ... are neither prepared and maintained or received in the course of the operation of Newton County nor are they maintained by me on behalf of Newton County," Hays stated.
Hays did provide a copy of the required certification showing she is certified to process passports.
The breakdown of passport fees collected according to the documentation provided by the county is as follows:
December 2007 -- $2,940
January 2008 -- $6,360
February 2008 -- $6,550
March 2008 -- $6,375
April 2008 -- $4,725
May 2008 -- $4,375
June 2008 -- $4,050
July 2008 -- $4,450
August 2008 -- $3,150
September 2008 -- $2,500
October 2008 -- $2,050
November 2008 -- $2,650
December 2008 -- $1,825
January 2009 -- $2,850
April 2009 -- $100
May 2009 -- $25
January 2010 -- $50
In 2011, Hays' salary was $125,365.54 according to documentation supplied by the county.
State law allows clerks of courts to keep the $25 administrative passport fees as personal compensation for doing federal work.
In Rockdale County, Clerk of Courts Ruth Wilson recently announced a plan under which she will receive none of the passport processing fees generated in her office for her personal use. Instead, Wilson said she will donate one-third of the funds to the county general fund; one-third to the clerk's office end-of-year bonuses; and the final third of the funds will be donated to local charitable organizations.
Over the past three years, Wilson has received approximately $117,000 in passport processing fees for her personal use.
Wilson said the Clerk of Court's website will post monthly information on the number of passports processed, the amount of passport fees collected, and the total account balance.The passport fees became an issue in Rockdale County after Wilson proposed to the BOC in March that she would retain only 50 percent of the fees collected for the processing of passports through the Clerk's Office. During the Rockdale County Board of Commissioners meeting in March, Commissioner JaNice Van Ness pressed Wilson why would she not return all the fees to the county, considering the passport applications are processed by county staff in a county-operated office.
Wilson said she was legally permitted to keep the fees, but she is now willing to share them with the county. She said until now no policy has been in place and she is attempting to establish one.
Editor Alice Queen and Staff Correspondent Aimee Jones contributed to this report.