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Board members abandon Chairman Caldwell on GBI investigation legal fees in McIntosh

The McIntosh County Board of Education held a specially-called meeting Tuesday morning to discuss adopting a policy that would allow the school system to pay the attorney’s fees for board members questioned by the GBI as part of current investigations. Adoption of the policy would also allow for compensation of legal expenses as a result of actual charges as wells.

The policy, which is permitted under OCGA 45-9-21, permits municipal and county governments bodies to reimburse or compensate elected or appointed officials for attorney’s fees. Exemptions include charges related to theft, misappropriation of funds, or embezzlement. Neighboring Chatham County, and the City of Savannah have codified the measure, while the McIntosh County Board of Commissioners just uses it as a policy. Darien exercises it on a case by case basis.

Three members of the public, including former McIntosh Academy principal Barry Lollis, addressed the board.

Lollis said, “Adopting this policy is not an emergency. Some of you, because of your actions, are being investigated criminally. This is not in the best interest of the community,” he said. Lollis went on:” Had members of this board followed the advice of the attorney paid by the taxpayers or listened to the superintendent, your need for personal legal counsel may not exist.”

Tim Gardner also expressed his concern to the board: “Some of the [Board members] must have gone rogue and did some things in their own and you want taxpayers to pick up for you after going outside the advice of the [board] counsel. We should be more concerned about our kids since we’re the lowest in the region.”

BOE attorney Richie Braun told the board he felt the policy was a good one, and he felt confident in the reasoning behind the enactment by the legislature. Braun is legally unable to provide counsel on individuals such as this because his client is the school system, not individual members.

Both Board members Fred McIver and Joe Maulden expressed their dissatisfaction with the desire of the Chair to enact the policy on an emergency basis. This means that the policy would be adopted outside of normal protocol and without being open to the public “on the table” for 30 days.
McIver said, “my concern is why now? It doesn’t look good that we’re getting ready to change board members and we just all of a sudden call a meeting when this can wait until January.”

Maulden seconded McIver’s concerns, “I have no problem with the policy. I have a problem with calling it an emergency. But I’ve been on the board for twelve years and I’ve never voted on a policy without laying it on the table for thirty days. Never.”

Vice Chair and Board member James McKinzie said he was more concerned with the integrity of adopting a policy than he was with the actual language of the policy. “I think it’s important to maintain the integrity by which we pass policy here. It may be a good policy, but I don’t think I particularly need it. I haven’t done anything criminal. But if it’s a good policy, we can have it if we maintain the integrity of the process.”

Chair Bonnie Caldwell, who will not be returning to office in January, made a motion to adopt the policy effective immediately. No board member seconded the motion, so the motion failed.

Board member Sandie McDonald made a motion to go ahead and place the policy on the table so that it could be addressed, and possibly adopted, at the February meeting. That motion also failed after McIver said that the vote should be deferred entirely until the new year after two new board members are sworn in.

The new board could still adopt a policy to pay the legal fees of any board member, and it could even be adopted to retroactively cover former members.

Visibly upset, Caldwell left the meeting immediately upon adjournment and refused to speak with any members of the media.

Jessica Szilagyi is a former Statewide Contributor for AllOnGeorgia.com.

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