The investigation ordered by Statesboro City Council into whether a majority of council members met in potentially illegal private meetings with former City Manager Frank Parker or City Attorney Alvin Leaphart began Tuesday at 11 a.m.
In an afternoon phone interview, Municipal Court Judge Keith Barber confirmed that he selected Tom A. Peterson IV, a Vidalia lawyer, to conduct the investigation.
"He started this morning doing interviews," Barber said.
A graduate of Mercer University's Walter F. George School of Law, Peterson previously served as an assistant district attorney in the Augusta Judicial Circuit. He now has a private practice, including criminal defense work, in Vidalia.
The investigation follows statements that Parker made in a June 19 meeting of city department heads and which were reported by Mayor Jan Moore and Leaphart during a specially called June 24 open session of City Council. By several accounts, Parker said that he had sometimes met with a majority of council members in private to discuss city business and that he had seen a majority of members meeting with Leaphart in his office. In the June 24 public session, Leaphart denied that he had ever done this.
Following closed-door deliberation at that meeting, City Council publicly voted 3-2 to fire Parker. That meeting concluded with the council unanimously adopting Moore's recommendation to ask Barber to select an attorney to investigate.
Council's instructions were that the investigating lawyer should have no connection with the city of Statesboro, and Barber said he is confident Peterson fulfills that. But Peterson has served as a city attorney elsewhere, Barber said, indicating that he believes this to be relevant experience.
The investigation has no fixed timeline. Barber said Peterson will report to him each Wednesday, after which Barber, in turn, will report to Moore, who will instruct him on whether to report then to City Council.
"We put no time restrictions on him," Barber said. "I believe that he knows what he's doing, and he will report to me weekly and I will report to the mayor and/or the City Council, until it's resolved one way or another."
In a previous interview, Moore said that an investigator would be assisting the chosen attorney. But both Barber and Moore, also contacted Tuesday, indicated that Peterson is working alone at this point.
"He wanted to go ahead and start some initial interviews and to see if he did in fact need an investigator, and we would go from there," Barber said.
Moore said she will give an update at next Tuesday's regular City Council meeting, but that it may just be to say that the investigation has begun.
"I'm hoping that it will be a relatively short process, but I'm not in any way, shape or form in control of it," Moore said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.