A special appointed judge listening to disputes between Milledgeville City Council and the Baldwin County Board of Commissioners recently hinted that additional mediation may be the best way for local government officials to settle their differences on Service Delivery Strategy (SDS).
And during a ruling handed down Friday afternoon that’s exactly what he ordered — more mediation between the local governing bodies.
Special Appointed Senior Judge H. Gibbs Flanders Jr., of the Dublin Judicial Circuit, also appointed a new mediator to oversee future talks between city and county officials.
The new mediator is Susan W. Cox, who is an attorney at-law and partner in the firm of Edenfield, Cox, Bruce and Colson, P.C., in Statesboro.
“Ms. Cox is familiar with the SDS mediation process and is available to conduct the mediation within 60 days from appointment, as required by the statute,” Flanders wrote in his order, a copy of which was emailed Monday to The Union-Recorder by Milledgeville City Attorney Jimmy Jordan.
“Upon completion of the mediation, a report shall be prepared by the mediator describing the issues considered, the agreement on issues, and the parties’ positions on issues for which the parties are unable to agree,” Flanders said in his ruling. “The parties shall engage in good faith mediation in a timely manner in an effort to agree upon the terms of a SDS for the citizens of the city of Milledgeville and Baldwin County.”
During a recent hearing in Baldwin County Superior Court, Flanders said he believes the mediation process needs to resume.
Flanders also issued several other rulings last Friday.
The judge dismissed the city’s lawsuit against the Baldwin County Board of Commissioners and each of the five commissioners.
Commission Chairman John H. Westmoreland issued the following statement in a press release send out Monday concerning the hearing and rulings by Flanders.
“I thank the judge for his time and rulings, but we (the county and city leaders) should be fashioning our own solution, not relying on court orders,” Westmoreland said. “Hopefully, further discussions and mediation will bring us together.”
The controversial matter has resulted in thousands of dollars in legal fees.
In an effort to resolve their differences, a pair of representatives from both governments met behind closed doors recently at Central Georgia Technical College in Milledgeville. Those representing the city included Mayor Pro Tem Steve Chambers and City Alderwoman Denese Shinholster. The county, meanwhile, was represented by Commission Chairman John H. Westmoreland and Commissioner Sammy Hall.
Jordan, the city’s attorney, told Flanders during the hearing that talks were continuing between both sides.
Andy Welch, who along with Brandon Palmer, of McDonough, are representing the county concurred with Jordan’s comment.
Three previous mediation attempts between the full membership of both governing bodies last year failed to resolve any differences.
Recently, county commissioners agreed to continue funding the public library through Dec. 31, 2020, but such a remedy is only temporary. Again, city and county officials must work out an agreement to fund library services for the next decade as opposed to providing a temporary solution.
During the hearing, Palmer said he believed the emphasis should be placed on getting a new SDS agreement reached between city and county officials.
“Let another judge worry about past actions,” Palmer said. “Let’s focus our attention here on what the taxpayers deserve and that’s getting a new agreement reached.”
Palmer told Flanders that he understood that the city had filed a motion to sever, but pointed out that matter wasn’t before him that day, and secondly, just severing creates a jurisdictional question.
“There’s still always going to be that cloud of doubt as to whether a petition filed under the
SDS Act, likewise, gives this court the jurisdiction to hear breach contract claims, the mandamus claims, the specific performance, and attorney fees outside of the SDS Act,” Palmer said.
He pointed out that the city alleges claims in the amount of about $4 million, whereas the county has alleged a breach of contract against the city, based on the 2008 SDS Agreement and in the amount of nearly $15 million.
“Imagine going through a full trial and then having a jurisdictional question be reversed upon the appellant level and all of that time and litigation having going to waste, your honor,” Palmer said.
City Attorney Jordan, along with Raymond DIckey talked on behalf of the city during the hearing.
“The motion to dismiss clearly should be denied,” Dickey contended. “We believe the case should proceed in one of those two veins. And that their motion to dismiss on the issue of whether this court can handle these things was made mute by that ruling in Clayton County.”
Flanders ordered that the city claims and the county’s corresponding counterclaim be sent back down to Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge William H. Prior for reassignment to another judge within the circuit.
The judge also concurred with attorneys representing the county that sanctions not be lifted indefinitely as was sought by attorneys representing the city.
Flanders gave both sides until Dec. 20 before sanctions are to take effect again.