Long-time clerk was powerful force in county gov’t

Morris Fortson didn’t say anything, but he typed in the board of commissioners’ actions onto his laptop Tuesday evening — his final act as one of Madison County’s most powerful political figures for the past 12 years. Those actions included having a deputy escort Fortson to his county clerk’s office Tuesday evening to remove his personal belongings. The BOC said Fortson should turn in his county keys to that deputy. They agreed to have the locks changed on the clerk’s office that night. The locks to the county government complex would also be changed. They agreed to contact local banks Wednesday to strip Fortson of his authority to handle county business.

“I regret that it’s come to this,” said Commissioner Bruce Scogin, who initiated the actions against Fortson.

Fortson will remain on paid suspension until his official termination takes effect Jan. 6, 2009. The clerk served as Chairman Wesley Nash’s assistant for Nash’s three terms in office. He served as the county’s chief financial officer for years, while also overseeing many personnel matters. He had great authority on the day-to-day operations of the county government and was at times referred to as a de facto county manager.

Scogin passed out a two-page proposal of termination to the BOC Tuesday, which cited Fortson’s “negligence, inefficiency or incompetence” and “misconduct.”

Fortson declined comment on the action against him, noting that he was not provided with the letter at Tuesday’s meeting.

The grounds for dismissal included errors in budgeting projected revenue, failure to handle a claim for unemployment benefits correctly, failure to implement auditor’s recommendations, continued accounting errors and failure to keep the BOC informed on significant issues.

The termination of Fortson came at the end of a called BOC meeting to discuss budget and tax issues. Scogin said he wanted to discuss a “personnel” issue, but Nash said the matter couldn’t be discussed because he hadn’t put it on the agenda. Scogin said he asked Fortson to include “personnel” on Tuesday’s agenda. And Commissioner Stanley Thomas said he was present when that request was made. But Fortson said he didn’t understand that and apologized for the miscommunication.

Scogin then asked for a “suspension of the rules” to discuss “personnel.”

“Unfortunately, Morris, this deals with you,” said Scogin as he introduced the proposed termination.

Scogin acknowledged that Fortson has been with the county a long time and is very knowledgeable about a wide range of county business.

“In certain things, if Mr. Fortson wasn’t here, I think we’d have some problems,” said Scogin.

The termination comes amid an ongoing investigation of missing money in the BOC office.

Fortson’s long-time assistant, deputy clerk Melinda Spence, was charged with stealing approximately $1,700 from the senior center earlier this year. And the Georgia Bureau of Investigation continues to look into numerous theft incidents in the BOC office in recent years that total more than $80,000. The GBI has yet to make an arrest in the case.

Scogin initially included a charge of “negligent supervision of employees” in the proposed termination. But that reason for dismissal was struck from the two-page termination letter Tuesday.

However, Scogin said there has been considerable talk in the community about the BOC office.

“There has been so much rumor and innuendo throughout the county,” said Scogin. “Talk of firing this one, that one or the other one, talk of theft, you name it, it’s been out there in the county. There’s a lot of pressure out there. A lot of things have come down the road to bring us to this point and I regret all of those things that have happened.”

The termination letter included the name of Wesley Nash with a spot for his signature.

“Do you have a problem signing off on this?” Commissioner Mike Youngblood asked Nash regarding Fortson’s termination.

“I do, I can’t sign off on it,” said Nash.

Nash said local legislation gives the chairman authority to hire and fire a clerk.

“The clerk serves at the pleasure of the chairman,” said Nash. “I’m not going to be chairman much longer, guys. That man right there (Anthony Dove, seated in the front row) is going to be chairman. If you usurp my authority, you’re going to usurp his authority. I’m telling you that man needs to be able to pick who he wants and know that no matter what happens, that person will work with him.”

Nash said that as soon as Dove comes into office, the new chairman will hire his own clerk.

“I’m just going to give you a theory of mine,” said Nash. “I think that man (Dove) is going to put who he wants in office sitting right here (where Fortson sits). At that point, this man (Fortson) will come out from under my mantle of authority. And guess what, he’s free game, free game. You guys can fire the hound out of him at that point, because he falls out from under the authority that I have and what this man is going to have.”

Nash said whether Fortson is fired is not the real issue.

“Whether he (Fortson) needs to be fired or not be fired, that doesn’t matter to me at this stage of the game,” said Nash. “I’m talking about what you are going to be doing to this man’s (Dove’s) position if you push this forward. I’m not going to fire the guy.”

County attorney Mike Pruett said he believes the BOC, not the chairman, has authority over the clerk’s position. He noted that the General Assembly passed legislation allowing the establishment of local merit systems. The BOC adopted such a system in 2000 for county employees, which included the clerk. He said the merit system takes precedence over the local legislation.

“But that is a point of debate,” said Pruett, adding that a judge would either have to rule on the matter or local legislation would have to be clarified.

Youngblood said Pruett has proved himself as an attorney over the past eight years.

“I trust what you tell us,” said Youngblood to Pruett.

In lieu of Nash’s signature on the termination document, the board agreed to have vice-chairman Wesley Jordan sign off on the termination letter.

Chairman-elect Dove offered a few words on the matter Tuesday.

“The county clerk’s office has been a point of contention across this county for a while now, probably just as much as the chairman’s race,” said Dove. “My intent was to open the job up and conduct interviews. I trust whatever the board does, but that is my plan, to open it up. I was going to interview to get the best person for me for the job.”

Scogin asked Dove if he would accept a resume from Fortson. Dove said he would accept a resume from anybody, but then added that the clerk’s position has been a major point of contention in the county in recent years.

The BOC met in closed session for about 25 minutes in the chairman’s office Tuesday. They agreed to exclude both Nash and Fortson from that meeting.

After they returned to the meeting room, they voted unanimously to suspend Fortson pending permanent termination in January. They also agreed to have recently hired deputy clerk Linda Cox “bonded,” meaning that she will be given the responsibility of handling cash in the BOC office.

Commissioner John Pethel said he feels Nash needs to take a more active role in county business, since Fortson will no longer be in the office.

“Since Morris is going to be absent till the first of the year and you’re still going to be receiving a check from the county, this board would strongly suggest that you come to your office every day and help out with the day-to-day operations, if you would agree to that,” said Pethel.

“Motion to adjourn,” Nash replied.

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