With the City Charter requiring at least three votes to pass any motion, Statesboro City Council on Tuesday night did not approve a resolution releasing a document requested by the GBI, despite two votes in favor and one opposed.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has an inquiry underway into some of the city’s billing practices. According to a resolution that was before the council, the agency requested a copy of the full June 22, 2013, report from a city investigation into issues surrounding a water and sewer account held by South Georgia Realty LLC.
After noting that the city attorney’s factual findings were released previously, the resolution asserted that the full report is “attorney work product.” This, according to the failed resolution, exempts the report from release under the Georgia Open Records Act and would shield it, because of attorney-client privilege, from a subpoena.
But the resolution, if approved by a majority consisting of at least three of the five council members, would have waived the attorney-client privilege claim and released the report.
“A resolution waiving attorney-client privilege as to certain attorney work product only” was the last item on the agenda. Council convened in open session at 5:30 p.m., with four members present, and Councilman Travis Chance, 5th District, away.
Personnel matters and potential litigation were the scheduled topics for a closed session, the next-to-last item on the agenda.
Councilman John Riggs, 4th District, left before council voted to go into the closed session around 7:45 p.m. So three of the five members remained.
Section 2-5-b of the City Charter states that “the affirmative vote of a majority of the members present” is required to pass any motion “except as otherwise provided.” But a later passage, 4-1-a, states that “the affirmative vote of three councilmembers shall be required for the adoption of any ordinance, resolution, or motion.”
Closed session ends
When the council reopened the meeting to the media around 9 p.m., Mayor Jan Moore said no action had been taken. But she then asked for action on the final item, the resolution.
Councilman Phil Boyum, 1st District, moved to approve the resolution releasing the report, and Councilman Gary Lewis, 2nd District, seconded the motion. Councilman Will Britt, 3rd District and mayor pro tem, voted against it.
Moore then announced that the motion did not pass. She noted the three-vote requirement when asked why a majority vote wasn’t enough.
Britt, in a phone interview Thursday, said his decision had nothing to do with the information in the document.
“I just believe that attorney-client privilege is attorney-client privilege,” Britt said. “I believe that gives a client, which is anyone, not just the city of Statesboro, the opportunity to speak to their attorney in private.”
This protection also gives an attorney the opportunity to speak to his or her client in confidence, he added. Britt said he wants City Attorney Alvin Leaphart to be able to speak freely to council on any matter.
“I believe that’s a right, and I wasn’t able to change that for this particular matter at all,” Britt said.
Moore said Wednesday that she does not intend to ask for another vote on the resolution when more members are present.
“No, because council voted and I can’t worry about who’s there,” Moore said. “Legally we could take a vote; it was on the agenda.”
2013 and now
In 2013, then-Mayor Joe Brannen asked Leaphart to investigate the city’s handling of water billing to South Georgia Realty LLC, then owned in part by Sterling Starling, a city employee and son of City Clerk Sue Starling. South Georgia Realty had accrued more than $6,000 in unpaid utility bills over the course of several months without having its water cut off or being assessed a cutoff fee, although it was charged late fees.
In a story Aug. 12, 2013, the Statesboro Herald reported that Leaphart said he did not believe that the city connections played any part in South Georgia Realty being afforded payment flexibility.
In a report then provided, according to the 2013 story, Leaphart noted that at least two other similar businesses, Varsity Apartments and Eagles Landing Apartments, were provided leniency with their bills.
This May, Special Agent in Charge Cathy Sapp, who heads the GBI’s Statesboro office, confirmed that the bureau had begun an inquiry into possible “improprieties or mismanagement of funds” in Statesboro’s government at the request of city Public Safety Director Wendell Turner.
Britt, who said he became aware of the problem as a result of the investigation, on May 5 paid $2,074 in late tax penalties from 2010 and 2011 that were never charged or removed in previous years for properties he owned and others he managed.
On May 19, City Council adopted an ordinance that requires extra levels of approval for city employees and elected officials to obtain water bill adjustments, such as those for leaks, that are available to customers generally.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.