MILLEDGEVILLE — A recent news article detailing two Baldwin County Commissioners are delinquent on 2013 property taxes created quite a stir Tuesday evening.
Commissioner Henry Craig, District 4, started the conversation during non-agenda item discussions at meeting's end.
“Last week, The Baldwin Bulletin made some ethical and legal challenges to this commission,” Craig said. “This commission cannot ignore those alleged instances. I propose we set up a committee to give us guidance as to how to deal with the allegations of 40 percent of this commission.”
The article alleged that Commissioner Tommy French, District 2, and Commissioner Emily Davis, District 1, failed to pay taxes on county properties owed by the Nov. 15, 2013 tax commissioner deadline.
Commission Chair Sammy Hall, District 3, said if someone fails to pay taxes the county tax commissioner would respond by selling the property or other action.
“I don't think there is anything that this commission can do when there are already things to take care of that issue,” Hall said. “It looks bad. I don't think a crime has been committed, and we can't enforce the law.”
County Attorney David McRee said unlike the City of Milledgeville the county lacks an ethics ordinance to pursue this situation.
“We as a body don't have control of this particular issue without there being an ethics ordinance,” McRee said Tuesday.
Craig said the elected board “should live by a higher standard.”
French responded to the tax related claims.
“Everybody in a perfect world can pay them on time, and I'm not going to tell you my situation because I will catch mine up,” he said. “I'll pay mine. You worry about yours.”
French cited an alleged email he perceived to be from Commissioner Johnny Westmoreland, District 5, which “pushed those issues.”
Westmoreland refuted saying his name wasn't on the email because it didn't come from him.
Citizen Harry Keim took ownership of the before mentioned email calling for action to “clear the air.”
French said a local group was “using hostile political tactics” to push the unification charter in Baldwin County.
“It's foolish. I will not be moved. I will not be threatened. I will not be pushed,” French said. “I will not be bought like you bought some of these other citizens. You will not threaten the people of Baldwin County talking about you are going to do it anyway.”
Westmoreland said the larger issue was the fact that all the elected commissioners signed a document stating there were no outstanding taxes owed.
“You signed it when you qualified and also when you took the oath of office,” Westmoreland said.
Hall said the first document signed during qualification “doesn't address that issue completely.”
“You have an opportunity to challenge that, and apparently, it wasn't challenged,” Hall said. “The oath you take says 'unaccounted funds.' Probate Judge Todd Blackwell and I agreed that we don't know exactly what unaccounted funds are. It's not our position to take this fight up.”
Citizen Pam Beer and former reporter for The Baldwin Bulletin, who also sought public office last year, commented Tuesday.
“I have a history of holding our elected officials to a higher standard,” Beer said. “Whether or not you've paid your taxes does not bother me, but if there is a possibility that you all signed something erroneously that you shouldn't have, we need to have it investigated. I don't want this to fall through the cracks. Just take the steps to make sure there is an official resolution to this.”
Andrew Strickland, who sought public office last year, said there should be an avenue for citizens to hold their elected officials accountable.
“That process should be in place, and there should be avenues to do that,” Strickland said.
Diane Lucette said the entire situation took her “aback” and was a “personal matter.”
“This is this man's personal finances. What's it to you?” she said. “Do you want us to know about your personal business? Why put it out in the public? Let him take care of it himself.”
County resident Hudman Evans said it looked like people were refusing to listen to the county attorney.
“You are refusing to listen to what they've said. All the appropriate avenues have been investigated,” he said. “I realize in these economic times that we all have problems. I appreciate having everyday working people on the commission just like me.”
When reached for comment after the meeting Davis said that she felt that “everything that needed to be said was said” Tuesday concerning any legal ramifications.
“I do think it's personal,” she added.
Hall mentioned he would alert the District Attorney's office to the situation during Tuesday's regular meeting close.