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Harden named city clerk, as duties change
Mayor and council plan 2 unrelated special sessions
New Statesboro City Clerk Leah Harden, second from left, stands with Mayor Jonathan McCollar, City Manager Charles Penny and City Attorney Cain Smith, who swore her in immediately after Tuesday’s meeting. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

Statesboro’s elected city officials this week named a new city clerk and planned for two unrelated upcoming work sessions, one of which is to be a discussion of expectations with the city manager.

Near the end of Tuesday’s 9 a.m. regular meeting, council went into a closed-door session, which lasted only a few minutes. After the doors were reopened, Mayor Jonathan McCollar announced that the council had arrived at a personnel decision.

The vote to appoint Leah Harden as city clerk was 4-0, on a motion by District 5 Councilman Derek Duke, seconded by District 3 Councilman Jeff Yawn.

“I’m just very honored and looking forward to serving our mayor and council and the city of Statesboro,” Harden said after the meeting.

She succeeds Sue Starling, who retired Aug. 31 after 30 years employment with the city, having served as city clerk the last 11 years.

Harden was hired five years ago as records clerk and was promoted to assistant city clerk four years ago. Originally from Minnesota, she has a high school education and is taking classes to become a Georgia-certified clerk, which she said she should attain at the end of this year.  The Georgia County Clerks Association and the Georgia Municipal Clerks Association together operate a certification program that exceeds the state’s requirements.


Change of duties

After the council’s vote, District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum publicly noted that a change in the city clerk’s responsibilities was underway. Starling had overseen billing for taxes and utilities, but the council is working with City Manager Charles Penny, who has been in that job since July 1, to reassign utility billing to one of the departments he oversees.

The city clerk, like the city manager and city attorney, is employed directly by the mayor and council. But department heads such as the police chief and finance director work at the discretion of the manager.

Boyum spoke up just as McCollar asked for a motion to adjourn.

“Just a point of order on that,” Boyum said. “I want to make sure that we direct Mr. Penny … that we separate the clerk’s position from the billing responsibilities and that we have those be two separate positions. As such, Mr. Penny will have to make some administrative decisions.”

The move, Boyum added, will place the billing clerk’s responsibilities “under Mr. Penny’s control.” The council did not vote on this but had apparently discussed it in closed session.

City Attorney Cain Smith is also to draw up a clerk contract for Harden, and all should be ready by the next regular council meeting, 5:30 p.m. Sept. 17, officials said.

“We’re going to be looking at where the billing portion for utilities fits, because as … the council recognizes, the utility portion is more within the responsibilities of the manager and finance, and so I just have to make an assignment as to where that responsibility lies, and I’ll be making a recommendation to council for the next meeting,” Penny said after Tuesday’s meeting.

The previous arrangement was based on individuals’ skills at the time, but the realignment will prevent “blurring lines,” he said.

Billing responsibilities will probably be placed in the city’s finance department, Penny said Friday.

The city clerk will still be responsible for city records, including keeping minutes of meetings and handling open records requests, and for the council and mayor’s training and travel arrangements and candidate qualifying for city elections.


Sept. 17 work session

As Tuesday’s meeting ended, McCollar announced two special council work sessions.

One of these, on Sept. 17 beginning at 4 p.m., will be open to the public, and is expected to include presentations on several topics. This work session will be held at Joe Brannen Hall, which is in a separate building beside City Hall on East Main Street.

Representatives of Freese and Nichols Inc., the engineering and project management firm city staff has been negotiating with to handle studies for the Creek on the Blue Mile project, is scheduled to explain their expected work and timeline.

Finance Director Cindy West is slated to deliver an end-of-year financial report for fiscal 2019, which concluded June 30.

Other topics include an update from Penny on discussions with county officials about county-funded parks in Statesboro, and the city’s recent transit study.

Officials will 90 minutes to hear about these things before convening next door at City Hall, for the 5:30 p.m. regular meeting in the second-floor council chambers.


Closed-door talk?

Another special work session will be held in the near future “to discuss expectations with the city manager,” McCollar said Tuesday.

He actually announced that this session would be held in the council chambers at 7:30 a.m. next Saturday, Sept. 14. However, that will not happen because the facilitator who has been invited to guide the meeting will not be able to attend then, Penny said Friday. So the meeting is being rescheduled.

That facilitator is Bob O’Neill, a retired executive director of the International City-County Management Association who lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

“More than anything, it’s just talking about how we work together, because I’m hoping to be here a while, and so I need to understand what it is council’s looking for, and you don’t often get to do that when you’re interviewing,” Penny said Friday. “And I will have been here about three months, so they have a chance to say, ‘We like the way you do this’ or ‘We don’t like the way you do that.”

The mostly likely new date and time is Tuesday, Oct. 1, possibly at 7:30 a.m., before the regular meeting that day at 9 a.m., he said. But this had not been confirmed.

Penny said this will not be an open meeting but will be closed as a personnel discussion.

“It’s like an evaluation, so you wouldn’t do that in open session,” he said.

Smith, the city attorney, agreed that it would be exempt from the open meetings requirement and said that no action will be taken during the closed session.

The Statesboro Herald will check further on whether such a meeting can be an exception to the Georgia Open Meetings Act.

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

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