Probation services contract approval delayed

COVINGTON -- The City Council put the brakes on hiring a new probation services provider Monday night, opting instead to have the city attorney review the Request for Proposals issued to make sure the wording passes legal muster.

The decision came following a complaint by Jennifer Hartman, a former employee of East Georgia Correctional Services, the company the city currently contracts with for probation services.

Hartman, who wrote a letter of complaint earlier this month, showed up in person at the council meeting to voice her objections over the way the RFP process was handled. Hartman alleged that her boss, Fran Martin, owner of East Georgia Correctional, did not have equal opportunity to bid on the new contract. Martin did not submit a proposal.

Hartman said language in the RFP specifies that the new probation services provider will meet with the former company.

"That says she didn't have the opportunity to rebid on this contract," Hartman said.

But Willie Davis, the city's career development manager, who was on the selection committee to determine the new provider, said the language refers to assistance that would be provided if there is a transition from one company to the next.

"What you're saying is that's relevant only if you've got a new company," City Manager Steve Horton said to Davis, who agreed.

Nevertheless, the council agreed to send the RFP to the city attorney for review before approving the recommended company, Judicial Alternatives of Georgia. Interim Municipal Court Judge Ben Hendricks has initialed the contract, signifying his approval as required; all that remains is for the council to ratify the decision.

Hendricks was appointed interim judge earlier this month after the council opted not to reappoint attorney David Strickland. Council members have not publicly stated why they made that decision.

Documents supplied to the Citizen by the city following an Open Records Request showed that Hartman filed a written complaint regarding Strickland days before the council's vote. In it, Hartman alleges "unethical and unprofessional" behavior by Strickland, citing a personal relationship with another former employee as well as alleging retaliation against the company after that employee was fired for stealing.

Hartman said the conflict with the former judge has been ongoing since 2010 and had been reported to several council members, former mayor Kim Carter, Horton and others with the city without results.

Horton said the probation company works for the City Council and if there was an issue, representatives should have come before the whole council with the complaint. Horton said that he and city staff tried to mediate some of the issues but they have no authority under the law to take action regarding the judge or probation company.

Hartman acknowledged that council members had only been notified of the issue weeks ago and said she was afraid going before the council in a public meeting would only intensify the retaliation against her boss by the former judge. When the council opted to issue RFPs for a new municipal judge, she said she felt safe to come forward.

"If you guys knew the situation, if you knew it from beginning to end, you'd know it's not right," she said.

Hartman also defended the probation company's performance, saying that while an audit pointed out several flaws, the company voluntarily brought that information to the city's attention and sought to remedy the issues.

The probation services contract expires at the end of March. The city has on file a letter of notification that the contract would be rebid that was sent to Martin in March 2011, a year in advance of the expiration.

After reviewing the probation services contract, city administration agreed to put out a request for proposals to include a requirement that respondents include a fee to cover the cost of community service supervision and transportation of community service workers, Administrative Services Director Ronnie Cowan previously told the Citizen. Under the current provider's contract, the city is absorbing those costs.