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Newton County attorney defends closed meeting legality

COVINGTON – Newton County Attorney Tommy Craig defends the legality of the closed meeting held by the board of commissioners on Jan. 21.

During the public comments portion at Tuesday’s meeting, several citizens questioned whether the closed meeting, in which county officials discussed County Manager John Middleton’s successor candidates, violated the Open Meetings Act.

According to the law, only three things can be discussed behind closed doors: litigation, land acquisition and personnel matters.

Craig said the board’s discourse in the closed meeting was appropriate because the primary focus was confined to discussing who would become Middleton’s understudy.

Middleton recently announced he would retire in the fall and told commissioners a succession plan needed to be considered.

Craig said in the beginning of the closed meeting the board asked Middleton to sit outside since the discussion involved him.

“The board wanted to talk privately about whether it was wise and appropriate to ask John to remain available to the county on a consultant basis after his retirement,” Craig said. “I brought him into the meeting once the consensus was reached.”

Commissioners asked Middleton if he was interested in advising and counseling the newly appointed county manager on a consultant basis after he retires and he agreed, according to Craig.

“John seemed flattered and cooperative, but no details of duration or compensation for being a consultant once he retired were discussed,” Craig said.

Craig said that as the closed meeting proceeded, Commissioner Levie Maddox noted he had contemplated the succession planning for about nine months due to Middleton’s previous health conditions and was ready to discuss internal candidates for the county manager position.

The executive session minutes obtained by the Citizen said, “the board discussed the position of assistant county manager and offering the position to Tom Garrett with the understanding that he is being trained to take over as county manager upon Mr. Middleton’s retirement.”

Craig said in an interview with the Citizen Friday that the board did discuss the succession planning process briefly.

“It’s not practical to run back and forth between the hall from open meeting to closed every two minutes. It’s moot,” Craig said. “Discussion of the process was integrated but the primary focus stayed on who to pick as John’s understudy.”

After candidates were discussed and a consensus was reached, Craig said Commissioner Nancy Schulz was not ready to vote because the assistant county manager position needed to be advertised and interviewed.

“The board discussed that it would take about four to six weeks and someone needed to start learning from John now,” Craig said. “There were further complaints and a request for an interview process. Mrs. Schulz initiated the conversation about the process and noted that it was a topic that needed to be discussed in an open meeting. I agreed that we needed to confine the focus to picking a successor.”

According to the meeting minutes submitted by County Clerk Jackie Smith, Schulz “voiced her concern that the discussion was going further than what the Open Meetings Act allows” and Craig advised the board “that discussions related to personnel policy matters should be held in open session while the discussion of individual employees or candidates for employment could be held in executive session.”

Craig said everything that was discussed in closed meeting was “rehashed when the board returned to open session.”

The next step the commissioners will take in the succession planning will be to approve Garrett’s compensation and job description. Craig recommends an annual salary of $82,316, which is a midpoint between Garrett’s compensation as the transportation director and Middleton’s salary.