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Vera Lane road improvements spark investigation

    Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch placed three Bulloch County transportation department employees on administrative leave Thursday pending an investigation  regarding road improvements to Vera Lane, a lonely dirt road stretching between Ga. 46 and U.S. 301 South near Register.
    No one lives on the road, but the owner of a "spec house" asked for the road to be widened, claiming it was dangerous and two cars could not pass on some parts of the road.
    Extensive improvements were made to a portion of the road, but only along the property being developed. Questions arising from public  complaints led to County Engineer Kirk Tatum, Transportation Director Eddie Smith and Area Road Superintendent Mike Boyett being given three days "administrative leave with pay,"  Couch said.
    The investigation into county workers performing road work on Vera Lane stem from public complaints to Bulloch County Commissioners, including a public comment made during a December Bulloch County Commission meeting.
    A drive through Vera Lane shows extensive road improvements including drainage pipes and ditch sloping, but the road work abruptly ends where a piece of property owned by a developer joins another property.
    Someone called Bulloch County Commissioner Robert Rushing to question the county's actions. He knew nothing of the project, and discovered neither did Couch.
    " It was done totally without any knowledge of mine,  and when I went to look at the road, I was just flabbergasted."
    He asked Couch about the road work, and Couch " was not aware of it either and said he would look into it."
    Rushing said if the road work had been done all the way through, from U.S. 301 South to Ga. 46, "I'd have said it was a good job of trying to make the road safe, but since it stopped at the development, I had some questions."
    Bulloch County Commissioner Roy Thompson drove out to view the Vera Lane improvements when he heard about it, and also noted the way the road work "stopped at the property line of an existing subdivision."
    He began asking questions, and said Smith told him the work had been done for "safety reasons."
    Neither Smith, Boyett nor Tatum were able to be reached Friday for comment.
    
Property owner asked for improvements
    In a memo to county leaders, Tatum said a "Mr. Sharpe" called and asked for road improvements to what he said was a dangerous road.
    Craig Sharpe, who owns the only structure on Vera Lane, a spec house he has up for sale, said Friday he did ask the county to improve the road.
    "I talked to ... Eddie Smith," he said. The work done " was their idea. The road was dangerous, and I mentioned it. They looked at it and said 'we'll widen it.'"
    Sharpe said he met with Smith and Tatum on Vera Lane to discuss the situation.
    Sharpe said the road work that was done is "wider than I wanted," and said he could not give a reason why the county workers stopped the improvements at the property line. He owns only five acres and the spec house. Nicky Powell Construction owns the subdivision, he said.
    According to information in a memo from Tatum to Couch, Powell is Sharpe's brother-in-law.
    "I don't know why they didn't go on further," Sharpe said. "I guess they messed up."
    But it was he, not Powell, who asked for  the road improvements. "I didn't want it as wide as it is," but Smith  told him they went ahead and did additional work in preparation for the possibility of the road being paved in the future. "Eddie Smith told me it could be paved as soon as 2009."
    In a memorandum to Couch explaining the work, Tatum wrote "I called Mike Boyett and gave him Mr. Sharpe's phone number. Mike subsequently called Mr. Sharpe and they arranged to meet on the road. Mike had previous knowledge of the sharp curves and the narrowness of the road and was glad that an adjacent property owner was interested in improving this section of road. Mike and Mr. Sharpe tentatively agreed on a plan of action. Mike then asked Eddie to meet him and Mr. Sharpe again on the road to review what he and Mr. Sharpe had discussed and to get approval before beginning work."
    Tatum also gave Couch information regarding work done and how much it cost, which he said was about $3,390.
    The sum as well as the level of road improvements raised questions, Couch said.
    
 Investigation ongoing
    Placing the men on leave was the first step in opening the internal investigation, Couch said.
    "Upon requesting and reviewing a memorandum from the county engineer describing the involvement of county forces with regard to the road improvements,  (I) have determined that some of the facts concerning the situation require additional investigation to clarify if the involvement or contributory influence in the matter by these employees may have resulted in work rule or misconduct violations," he said in a statements released Friday regarding Smith, Tatum and Boyett being placed on leave.
    Public and media interest, as well as additional time being needed to investigate, led to the decision to place the men on leave, he said. Also, "A determination needs to be made as to whether additional resources are needed to investigate the issues that are currently not available."
    The internal investigation will conclude Tuesday, he said. "The employees will be asked to report back to work on Wednesday, Jan. 16, as normal, pending further notice of the results of the investigation."
    Commissioners are concerned that proper procedures and policies were not followed regarding the decision to improve the road.
    "I told them in ( a previous Bulloch County Commission meeting) it looks  like they enhanced that guy's property," Thompson said. "That's public perception."
    “I am not aware of any work of an exact or similar nature being done in the time that I have been here," Couch said. "One of the reasons I came to Bulloch County is that I was assured that we follow strict rules and standards regarding the use of county resources.
    "Naturally, individual dirt roads have different maintenance demands depending on the volume and type of traffic. We try to rely on the use of sound professional judgment by our managers in the Transportation Department to determine what needs to be done in those situations. However, both the Board of Commissioners and I do not condone nor would have authorized this type of work – especially, when it appears that all the red flags were present. Our first concern is with the soundness of this decision by the employees we delegate this responsibility to.”
    "I hope we can get to the bottom of this and t he outcome is satisfactory," Rushing said.
    "I have total confidence in the employees of Bulloch County, but I wish they had asked first before that extensive work was done," Thompson said.

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