With another year coming to a close, disputes over a new Service Delivery Strategy agreement between Milledgeville City Council and the Baldwin County Board of Commissioners will likely be at the forefront many more times before anything is settled.
Dublin Judicial Circuit Superior Court Senior Judge H. Gibbs Flanders Jr. ruled last week that local city and county government officials must go back to the mediation table to attempt to resolve their differences.
This time, there will be a new person serving as mediator, Susan W. Cox, a lawyer, whose firm is based in Statesboro.
Flanders appointed Cox to serve as mediator last Friday in Baldwin County Superior Court.
New mediation talks between the two sides aren’t expected to happen right away as a mediation schedule has yet to be established.
Three previous mediation hearings between the two local governments last year failed to resolve the bulk of their differences over SDS. The mediator then was Theodore Meeker.
Recently, a pair of representatives from both the city and county met at Central Georgia Technical College in Milledgeville to discuss some of the issues.
Attorneys on both sides have indicated that communication lines remain open.
“On Sept. 25, 2019, a hearing was held on motions regarding the plaintiff’s complaint for mandatory mediation of Service Delivery Strategy, breach of contract, specific performance, and other relief,” Flanders wrote in his order granting mandatory mediation. “The parties engaged in three days of mediation on Service Delivery Strategy (SDS) issues before filing the present lawsuit, but they were unable to reach agreement. After considering the parties’ comments about mandatory mediation, the court concludes that mandatory mediation as described in O.C.G.A. 36-70-25.1 (d) (1)(B) is appropriate.”
Flanders also signed an order that temporarily holds sanctions in abeyance.
The judge based his decision on the fact that there still has not been a revised SDS agreement reached as of yet by city and county government leaders.
“The imposition of such sanctions means that Baldwin County and Milledgeville are ineligible to receive state-administered financial assistance, grants, loans or permits, as provided for in O.C. G.A. 36-70-27,” Flanders said.
The special appointed judge said the city of Milledgeville had filed its verified complaint for mandatory mediation of SDS, breach of contract and other relief and had requested that the court hold the sanctions imposed by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) in abeyance during the pendency of such action.
That means that neither the city or county can apply for DCA grants, or other assistance unless they meet for mediation within the next 60 days. If they do not reach a new SDS agreement, they must notify the judge within 10 days out from his imposed Dec. 20 deadline of any extenuating circumstances keeping them from reaching a deal.
The county, meanwhile, objects to the holding of sanctions in abeyance for an indefinite period, and instead requested of the court to only temporarily hold sections in abeyance.
“The SDS Act requires the county and city to reach an agreement on a service delivery strategy and the General Assembly provided sanctions as the tool to motivate the parties to reach an agreement,” Flanders wrote in his order. “Lifting these sanctions indefinitely or for long periods of time effectively minimizes the effectiveness of the legislative tool to hasten an agreement. The court finds that maintaining sanctions except when circumstances justify and only for limited periods is an approach more consistent with the legislative purpose for sanctioning.”
In order for both parties to continue to try to reach a new SDS agreement, Flanders ordered that the sanctions imposed by DCA on the city of Milledgeville and Baldwin County pursuant o O.C.G.A. 36-70-27 be held in abeyance until Dec. 20, 2019.
Flanders pointed out that a copy of his order would be sent to DCA officials and to inform them that sanctions are to be automatically imposed on the day following the date of Dec. 20, 2019.
The judge also said before the expiration of the abeyance time frame that both parties shall update the court as to the status of ongoing negotiations if any existed at that time.
Flanders also ruled that upon the expiration of the time limit for holding sanctions in abeyance that both parties immediately provide notice to DCA that sanctions are no longer held in abeyance.
The judge further ordered that any party that desires sanctions to be held in abeyance after said date set forth in his order, “they shall move this court for an order holding sanctions in abeyance, no later than Dec. 10, 2019, showing just cause as to why sanctions should be held in abeyance and for what reasonable period of time.”