It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… depending on which side of Commerce Street your office could be found.
After a rough month for Republican Sole Commissioner Jason Winters, including the largest property tax increase in county history and a botched roll out of an animal control ordinance, a recent spat arose between Winters and long-standing Probate Judge, Jon Payne. During a recent audit, the Commissioner claims to have uncovered something the local newspaper referred to as “pocketing” of funds generated from providing copies of vital records to local citizens. In a blaring headline, the newspaper seemed to indicate wrongdoing on the part of the probate judge by declaring “Payne is Pocketing Money From Vital Records Copies.”
While the inflammatory headline stemmed from a harsh letter written by Winters to Payne requesting that Payne discontinue the practice, Payne promptly responded, along with attorney Albert Palmour, demanding a formal in-person apology from Winters and vindication by the newspaper.
Winters’ letter claims that the audit by accountant, Chrysan Thomas, uncovered checks totaling just over $75,000 from 2015 and 2016. Winters goes on to insinuate that he had no prior knowledge of such payments despite entering his 9th year of office. The Commissioner’s letter continues on to threaten involving the IRS in the matter, demands detailed bank account information regarding the monies, and requires that all future fees collected as custodian of Vital Records be remitted to the Clerk of Chattooga County.
Attorney Albert Palmour refuted Winters’ claims with a letter explaining that the Supreme Court of Georgia had ruled on this procedure back in 1983 and stated, “that while the Probate Judge of a county is an elected official with a salary controlled by statute, his appointment as the local custodian of vital records is an administrative position that is controlled by different statute this making the appointment a separate job.” A separate job Judge Payne has held since 1983. A job which derives sole compensation from fees generated by copies of vital records.
According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, “There are 159 counties in Georgia. Each county has a vital records registrar and vital records custodian appointed by the state registrar. Depending upon the county, the vital records registrar or custodian may be located at the county health department or in the office of the probate judge.”
Albert Palmour condemned the Commissioner’s action, calling Winters’ actions “personally… reprehensible.” Palmour noted that it took only minutes to uncover the statute regarding this matter and openly wondered why the commissioner and his attorney failed to uncover the same legal precedent.
Judge Payne feels so strongly about the service and reputation he has established over the course of 43 years with the county that he is still considering legal action regarding the letter and the accompanying headline. The use of the term “pocketing” has several definitions, most are negative and the initial news article used the verb nearly half a dozen times.
gerund or present participle: pocketing
- put into one’s pocket.
- “she watched him lock up and pocket the key”
- steal, take, appropriate, thieve, purloin, misappropriate, embezzle; take or receive (money or other valuables) for oneself, especially dishonestly.
- “local politicians were found to have been pocketing the proceed
AllOnGeorgia spoke with Judge Payne specifically about how the recent audit could have generated so much surprise with the Commissioner in spite of being settled case law for 33 years. Judge Payne said that Commissioner Winters referenced the payments and asked him, “Why haven’t you told me?”. To which Judge Payne responded, “…you hire the auditors. Do you not read the audits?”
AllOnGeorgia also inquired as to how often Payne and the sole commissioner had meetings. “It’s probably been a year since we sat down and met,” said Judge Payne. During a recent meeting between the two, Judge Payne brought along a voice recorder and the Commissioner verbally balked and did not allow the meeting to be recorded. “He did NOT want it recorded!” said Judge Payne.
After meeting to discuss the vital records fees, Winters told Payne that they would meet again “in two or three weeks” and Judge Payne says he has yet to hear from the commissioner beyond the letter. Payne said that the frequency with which he meets with Commissioner Winters is by far less often than previous commissioners who held scheduled meetings with elected officials and the public.
Judge Payne says he feels strongly that the Commissioner is casting aspersions on someone else in an effort to remove some of the spotlight from his own office and the property tax increase.
The most interesting part of the interview with Judge Payne was a question the Commissioner posed to him. “Why do you think you deserve more money that I do?” Winters inquired.
Several other questions linger that many citizens would like answered.
- Does the commissioner understand the law regarding vital record fees and the custodian of these records?
- How have the allocation of these funds gone unnoticed by the Commissioner for so long?
- If the law is clear that county commissioners can establish a resolution to cap the funds set aside for a Custodian of Vital Records, why hasn’t this been proposed?
After the exchange of letters, the County Attorney, Chris Corbin, has recused himself from further proceedings, leaving Commissioner Winters hiring outside counsel to represent him at the expense of the taxpayer.