Barrow County and its municipalities have been temporarily relieved of sanctions as the parties get set to begin court-ordered mediation over unresolved service-delivery issues.
In a Sept. 12 order in Barrow County Superior Court, retired Chief Judge David Sweat of the Western Judicial Circuit in Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties stayed the sanctions, which were imposed on the local entities by the state after they failed to reach an updated service-delivery strategy (SDS) agreement by the expiration of the previous one. The sanctions made the county and municipalities ineligible for any state-administered grants, loans, permits or financial assistance.
Sweat, who is presiding over the case because it must be heard by a judge outside of the Piedmont Judicial Circuit, also has appointed retired Georgia Supreme Court Justice Norman Fletcher as the mediator.
According to the court order, mediation must begin within 30 days of that appointment. Jack Wilson, attorney for the City of Auburn, said Sept. 13 that the parties were working to schedule that mediation.
Under the state’s SDS law, counties and their municipalities are required to update their agreements every 10 years. Barrow County’s previous agreement originally expired Oct. 31, 2018 and each of the entities agreed to a three-month extension to Feb. 28 to try to iron out their differences. But despite three voluntary mediation sessions that lasted a total of 30 hours — Sept. 4, 2018, Nov. 12 and May 10 — the parties failed to agree to all areas.
The two unresolved areas are water utility service and road maintenance, with water service being a major source of disagreement between the county and the City of Winder. The city does not levy a property tax and uses water system revenues to fund some of its services. Residents outside the city limits are charged higher water rates than those inside the city, and county commission chairman Pat Graham has said that leaves those residents without a “political voice inside the city.”
In July, Wilson said the cities planned to file the petition in court to force the mandatory mediation. But it was ultimately the county that filed the petition in August. The parties also jointly filed a consent motion requesting relief from the sanctions, which “will serve the best interest of the citizens of the county and the cities,” while mediation is ongoing.
Fletcher was appointed to the state’s high court in 1989 by then-Gov. Joe Frank Harris and was chief justice from 2001-2005. He retired from the bench in 2006.
The talks will be held privately under a state open-meetings law exemption. County attorney Angie Davis said Sept. 10 that she hoped mediation could be complete by November and a proposed agreement would be brought before the county board of commissioners and each city/town council for approval.