BOC office space to be rearranged due to Open Meetings Act

COVINGTON -- The designated office for county commissioners at the Newton County Historic Courthouse is being changed to assure that officials do not violate the Open Meetings Act.

Chairman Kathy Morgan said right now there is one office for all five county commissioners that includes desks and a conference table. Commissioners can use the office to schedule meetings and catch up on paperwork.

In light of the new Open Meetings Act that imposes harsher penalties on violators, Morgan said two commissioners approached her about changing the office set up. By law, a quorum of elected officials constitutes a meeting that must be open to the public.

"A couple of commissioners have come to me and said they walked in the office and had to back out because there were already two commissioners in there and they were afraid they might be discussing county business and they didn't want to be in the room," she said. "They were concerned about the perception that they might be trying to have a private meeting and they asked if there was anything we could do about it."

The proposed solution is to move County Clerk Jackie Smith's office into the current commissioners' office. Smith's office has a divided office with two rooms that commissioners can use. They will also use an office about to be vacated by an employee in the finance department. That will give commissioners three offices versus one.

"It's inconvenient and they need to be able to do what they need to do at the courthouse without having to make multiple trips to get their jobs done," Morgan said. "I don't want to insinuate there's a reason other than that. When they're in there is usually before a meeting and before a meeting they usually are talking about county business or something they want us to look into. I can see how someone might question whether they are having a private meeting."

Morgan said the plan is to use inmate labor to rearrange the offices and the only other cost to the county could be the purchase of a couple of additional phones.