1999 IN REVIEW:
A look at Madison County's top news stories
Newsmakers of the Year
BY ZACH MITCHAM
While Madison County's political storm has died down considerably, 1999 was not a stable year in county politics.
There were resignations, recall efforts, libel suits, Ethics Commission investigations, an attempt to kick a commissioner out of the Republican party, a contempt order filed against the commission chairman, a lawsuit between the county government and schools, reported vandalism and a politically charged $13,000 pay cut.
A number of people were involved in these conflicts. But two names grabbed the most headlines - Patsy Pierce and Jerry Mattox. Madison Countians unfamiliar with commissioner Pierce or recall chairman Mattox at the beginning of 1999 probably know of the two by now. If county residents haven't read about the two or seen them on TV, they've surely noticed the large green and white signs bearing their names by county roads this year.
The third recall fight in the county has been lengthy and often ugly. And it has yet to be resolved. Another hearing is scheduled for Jan. 10 at 1 p.m. in Jackson County Superior Court.
Mattox, who helped organize recall efforts against commissioners Jack Fortson and Ken Clark, launched a recall effort against Pierce in April. Like the recall efforts that forced Clark and Fortson to resign from office earlier this year, the District 3 effort was based on three alleged open meetings violations of the Madison County Board of Commissioners in 1997.
Issues allegedly discussed illegally in private included the county's policy on employee probation, the policy on setting the county clerk's salary, whether county employees should wear helmets on county equipment and the cost of training for county Emergency Medical Technicians.
While the alleged illegal meetings were the basis of the three recall efforts, few dispute that a 1998 commissioners' vote to double their own pay was the spark that lit the recall flame. Many citizens were outraged at the commissioners, saying they were selfish and sneaky in approving the pay increases.
There are those who have applauded the three recall efforts, saying that leaders should act in the public's interest, not their own. Others have expressed dismay, believing Pierce and her two fellow commissioners were wrongly accused of breaking the law.
Another response, and perhaps the most overwhelming, has been a desire to see a lid put on all the political feuding.
Pierce maintained that the recall efforts were not "about alleged illegal meetings."
"Some people think or have been led to believe that we have committed some type of crime," said Pierce earlier this year. "And some media have made it appear that way. If one of us did something wrong, we all did."
Pierce said the real reasons for the recalls were that she, Fortson and Clark voted to fire county attorney Pat Graham as well as to sue commission chairman Wesley Nash, claiming that the chairman illegally bypassed board authority on financial and personnel matters. The Georgia Court of Appeals upheld a ruling in favor of the commissioners this year.
Pierce said the judgment proved the commissioners were "hardly making it all up" about the chairman's wrong doings.
Like Clark and Fortson, Pierce believes Graham was behind the recall efforts. Graham, however, has denied any involvement in the efforts.
Mattox maintained that Pierce should not only be removed from office, but that she should no longer be a member of Madison County's Republican party.
He said Pierce failed to participate in affairs of the party, while conducting herself in a manner detrimental to the local party. Mattox said his support of Pierce's removal was "solely based upon illegal acts she committed while in office - specifically illegal meetings she attended." Although he also admitted he was angered by Pierce's actions against chairman Nash.
Mattox also questioned Pierce's use of her in-home fax line funded by the county. He said there were $26 in questionable expenses. But the commissioners voted to cover those expenses after it was revealed that Pierce's son used the fax line to set up training sessions for the Hull Volunteer Fire Department.
The Pierce-Mattox conflict heated up on June 5, when the county Republican party gathered at the county government complex to discuss ousting Pierce from the party.
Two sheriff's deputies were called to the complex after Mattox refused admission to the meeting room to many of those on hand, including Pierce and her supporters. The recall chairman announced that the meeting would be rescheduled to take place "in private at a private location."
This angered the crowd, with several shouting their objections.
The attempt to kick Pierce out of the party was soon dropped, but the conflicts between the two continued.
Madison County Superior Court Judge George Bryant issued a temporary restraining order in late June against those seeking Pierce's recall.
"He (Bryant) agreed that this nonsense about the meetings wasn't sufficient," said Pierce's attorney Jeff Rothman.
Along with the restraining order, Pierce filed a libel suit against Mattox for allegedly uttering and publishing false statements meant to vilify her.
"Mattox's campaign against (Pierce) is calculated to injure (Pierce's) reputation and expose her to public hatred, contempt and ridicule," said Rothman. "Mattox should be required to pay actual and punitive damages to (Pierce)."
That same week, Pierce filed a contempt order against Nash, claiming that the chairman failed to follow the judge's orders from the suit with the commissioners.
Pierce contended that Nash continued to hire county employees without board approval, refused to comply with courthouse security measures adopted by the commission and failed to turn over materials he possessed in relation to his former position as county treasurer. The judge ruled that the chairman should not carry that title.
Nash said Pierce was "poking at a carcass to raise a stink." He said he followed the law.
"I have gone out of my way to stay straight," Nash said. "I want to go on with county business."
Also in June, Mattox reported to police that District 3 recall signs across from Diamond Hill Grocery, on Piedmont Road and on Glenn Carrie Road were vandalized, with someone covering the name of "Patsy Pierce" with a large strip of plywood painted green with Mattox's name stenciled in white letters.
Mattox theorized that "it's got to be a Patsy Pierce supporter" who vandalized the signs.
Pierce said she had no idea who tampered with the signs, saying she would never stoop to the level of vandalism.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he (Mattox) did it," said Pierce.
Soon after, Mattox filed a libel suit against Pierce for the comment that he may have defaced the signs himself and for allegedly libelous statements by Pierce on a flier posted on a bulletin board in the county administrative offices.
"Should Mrs. Pierce be allowed to get away with abusing the power of her office and the power of the courts against me, there will be no one immune from the same kind of unjust treatment," Mattox wrote in a letter to the Journal.
Mattox also asked that the recall hearings be moved out of Madison County and Judge William F. Grant decided to do just that in August.
Though there were several showdowns between the two, Pierce wasn't Mattox's lone adversary this year. Mattox filed a complaint with the State Ethics Commission in August. The commission found probable cause on allegations that Clark:
·accepted an illegal contribution by an agency of government (the nearly $20,000 in legal fees in defense of a recall effort).
·failed to file campaign contribution disclosures on funds received in connection with the recall defense.
·failed to disclose all campaign contributions received in 1998.
Mattox aimed to force Clark to pay back the money he received from the county in defense of his recall effort.
Clark's father, Louie, filed his own complaint with the Ethics Commission this year, claiming that his son's recall group failed to file proper financial disclosures with local authorities. The commission levied $225 in late filing fees against the recall group.
The elder Clark said Mattox's action against his son was "another form of harassment."
"I wish they'd leave Ken alone," he said.
Major Madison Co. stories of 1999
The top news story in Madison County this year was the unveiling of a 911 system.
Madison County opened its long-awaited E-911 system in May, with the new $500,000 system considered by many to be "state of the art."
Not only is the system able to page out emergency departments once the type of emergency is discovered, dispatchers may also utilize an on-screen map to direct responders directly to the scene, if necessary. A floor plan, even a hand-drawn sketch, of any building, such as the government complex or high school, can be scanned into the computer at a moment's notice and used to direct firefighters or others through the building.
Maps can also zoom in on a particular street - or even a particular house. Icons on the screen, such as firetrucks or firemen, help the dispatcher tell at a glance what emergency workers are en route or on the scene.
A dispatcher may also talk with a caller and emergency units simultaneously and listen to a caller through their earpiece while transmitting information to the units.
The 911 department is led by director David Camp and assistant director Ricky Hix.
Other major stories in Madison County this year - in no particular order of importance - included:
Clark, Fortson resign from county commission
After a lengthy battle against a recall effort, District 4 commissioner Ken Clark resigned from office in February. District 5 commissioner Jack Fortson stepped down from office in April.
Both resigned days before scheduled recall votes against them. The recall efforts were based on three alleged illegal meetings held by the board of commissioners in 1997.
But neither Clark nor Fortson believed the alleged illegal meetings were the real reason behind their removal from office. Both believed fired county attorney Pat Graham masterminded the efforts to get revenge for his dismissal. Graham said he had no involvement with any recall efforts.
Drake, Scogin elected to BOC
Melvin Drake defeated Terry Chandler in a runoff for the District 4 county commission seat in April and Bruce Scogin topped John Dove in a June special election for the District 5 seat.
The District 4 race also included Marc Perry, who received the fewest votes in an initial election and was not included in the runoff.
Both Drake and Scogin said they would work to end the conflicts between county leaders.
County approves pay plan
After nearly a year of discussion, Madison County officials finally approved a wage system for county employees in December, a move aimed at ensuring fair pay for all.
The board of commissioners voted 3-2 to accept a plan that includes a two percent pay increase for all county employees in 2000, with some underpaid employees receiving more than two percent to bring them in line with their appropriate wage.
For years, county employees complained that wages were unfair. Officials agreed, noting that an employee with more time under his belt may make less than a new employee with the same responsibilities.
So the county conducted its own pay study, comparing salaries of similar jobs in comparable-sized Georgia counties.
The county then proposed a pay system that divided workers into classifications based on job skills and responsibilities. The plan is to ensure fair pay and give employees the incentive to learn new skills and move up the pay scale into a better pay bracket.
Hull water system under way
Construction of a county-operated water system for the Hull area began this year. The Madison County Industrial Authority, which received a $300,000 grant for the project, is overseeing the system.
The new system, expected to be in service in April, will provide water for the new Hull-Sanford Elementary school and the Hwy. 29 Ingles Megamarket.
County officials are excited about the system, saying the water will lead to commercial growth in the Dogsboro area, which would mean more tax revenue for the county.
Developer sues county
A Madison County developer filed a federal suit against the board of commissioners in September, claiming the group illegally thwarted his plans for an 11-home development on approximately 60 acres on Double Branch Road.
James Guest seeks "not less than $100,000" in punitive damages against the commissioners for their actions against his development. Guest's attorney Victor Johnson said the board's actions violated Guest's due process and equal protection rights. He asked that the court declare as void actions against his client on Oct. 12 of 1998 and Jan. 11 of this year. The attorney also says Guest should be awarded a manufactured building permit for the first lot in his proposed development.
The commissioners overturned zoning administrator Lee Sutton's approval of Guest's plans, then voted to take legal action to stop Guest from proceeding with his development. Opponents of the development say the new homes would hurt wetlands in the area and cause overcrowding and traffic problems, while lowering property values for surrounding homes.
County proceeds with jail project
Nearly a year and a half after the passage of a sales tax to support a new jail, the board of commissioners took action on that project this year.
The board selected an area behind Fine Finish on Hwy. 98 across from the recreation department as the new jail site. The jail will be a 60-bed facility, with future additions expected.
Madison County's existing jail consistently ranks as the most overcrowded county detainment facility in the state. County voters approved $2.3 million in sales tax funds in 1998 for the construction of a new jail.
Clerk's pay cut $13,000
County clerk Morris Fortson's pay was cut $13,000 by commissioners Ken Clark, Patsy Pierce and Jack Fortson in January. Clark said Morris Fortson's pay was set at the same rate as the previous clerk, who had been with the county for eight years. Chairman Wesley Nash awarded a salary too high for an employee new to the position, Clark said.
But the clerk's pay was set at its original rate after Clark's resignation from the county commission. Pierce and Jack Fortson later claimed that the vote to return Morris Fortson's pay to its original rate was illegal, saying that three "yes" votes were necessary. The commissioners had missed meetings and were unable to vote on the matter. But when chairman Nash asked the board to "validate" the votes, Pierce and Fortson simply refused to vote. Nash said the move to return the pay to its earlier rate was valid.
Courthouse renovations begin
Work began this year on the restoration of the historic Madison County courthouse, with the replacement of the structure's deteriorating roof.
The board of commissioners allotted $100,000 in its budget for the courthouse, and the Madison County Courthouse Restoration Committee raised more than $50,000 in grants and donations for the project. The cost of the roof was $136,000 plus six percent in architect fees.
The courthouse, built in 1901, has been vacated for almost two years since government offices moved into the county complex located at the site of the old Danielsville Elementary School.
Court of appeals upholds ruling on BOC case
The Georgia Court of Appeals upheld a Monroe judge's ruling that Madison County Board of Commissioners chairman Wesley Nash illegally subverted the authority of the board in several ways.
The suit was filed by commissioners Patsy Pierce, Ken Clark and Jack Fortson.
The judgment against Nash stipulated Nash was to transfer funds from one bank to another, to hire county employees and set their salaries only after board consent, to give up his title as "county treasurer" and to enter the county government complex only through the front door.
BOE suit against county falls flat with
An attempt by the Madison County school board to keep county building inspectors out of school system facilities fell short in court in October.
Superior Court Judge Lindsay Tise issued an order denying a request by superintendent Dennis Moore for a declaratory judgment against the county. If granted, that judgment would have kept county building inspectors from inspecting county schools.
The school officials claimed that the county's inspection of school facilities undermines the authority of the school board.
DANIELSVILLE BYPASS PLANNED
The Georgia Department of Transportation announced plans this year to widen Hwy. 29 to four lanes from Dogsboro to north of Danielsville. The highway project will also include a bypass around Danielsviille.
The project is set for construction in 2006. The DOT is looking at two possible routes around Danielsville, an east and west bypass.
The east bypass would dispace 34 homes and four businesses. A western route would displace 29 homes and five businesses.
A public hearing on the project was held in Madison County on Dec. 9. Another will be scheduled in 12 to 18 months, according to DOT officials.
Business Story of the Year
Ingles Megamarket construction under way in Dogsboro
BY MARGIE RICHARDS AND FRANK GILLISPIE
It was a long time coming, but construction of a new, larger Ingles Megamarket in Dogsboro finally got under way in late summer.
Ingles store manager Jerry Drake said as of this week construction is on schedule and that a grand opening is tentatively planned for April 22 - although he cautioned that factors such as weather could cause that to change.
Construction of the new store was delayed in part because of restrictions on the water supply from neighboring Clarke County, who currently furnishes water to the Hull area.
But Ingles officials decided to go ahead with the project on the promise that the new Madison County water system will be available by April 2000 - about the same time construction is scheduled to be completed, according to Dave Bennett, manager for Leslie Contracting, Inc. who is in charge of the project.
A 300,000-gallon water storage tank is under construction near the new Hull/Sanford school. The county Industrial Authority is overseeing the construction of the water system that will serve the school, Ingles and the Dogsboro area.
Aligned with the present structure, the new Ingles is 65,000 square feet of floor space and covers approximately one and one-half acres.
The mega-store will contain an enlarged grocery area, a video store, flower shop, sit-down deli, enlarged meat and produce departments and other enhanced features.
More checkout lines and larger restrooms with diaper changing stations will increase convenience for customers.
An enlarged loading dock and storage area will allow vendors to park and unload in the rear of the building.
Once the new store is open, the present building will be renovated for use by one or more other retailers.
In addition to the new larger Ingles, another retail chain, Dollar General, opened its doors in the Dogsboro area earlier this year.
Madison County is expected to benefit from the increased sales tax revenue from continued retail expansion in the Dogsboro area.
County officials plan to use the increased revenue to finance the new water system and other public improvements.