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Are the Actions by the City of Reidsville Illegal?

After issuing a call for a special meeting late Thursday evening, the Reidsville City Council met for meeting on Monday morning at 8:00 a.m.

In attendance at the meeting was Mayor Eddie Rewis, five of six councilmen and women, the city attorney, Van Cheney, and the city clerk, Kellie Murray. Also in attendance were citizens Sydney Clifton -who is running for Mayor of Reidsville-, David Avery from the Tattnall County Chamber of Commerce, and myself, contributor for All On Georgia.

Upon arriving at the City of Reidsville town hall, a notice was posted on the door indicating that the meeting was for executive session. No reason was stated, so I asked a receptionist behind the desk. She didn’t know, but directed me to the city attorney, Van Cheney, who responded, “I don’t run the meetings.”

The meeting started at exactly 8:00 a.m., the invocation and Pledge of Allegiance were completed and immediately upon returning to our seats, a motion was made to move to executive session. No reason was stated. The citizens exited and waited in the lobby for over an hour as the council convened behind closed doors.

Georgia law cites that executive sessions may be called for specific purposes, strictly limited to:

  • Human relations/ personnel
  • Property (negotiations, leases, or purchases)
  • Pending litigation matters

No action may be taken during executive session and if there is a quorum, no official business may be taken. The law is over 15 years old. It is clear.

ocga 50-14-4Georgia law also states that in addition to filing an affidavit for the reason of the executive session with the official meeting minutes, a reason must be stated upon exit to and from executive session to be entered in the official meeting minutes. Neither of those things happened.

Just after 9 a.m., the public was called back into the meeting where it was said that councilwoman Susan Fountain Thomas, who just happens to be running against sitting mayor Eddie Rewis, would be paying an unknown amount of money back to the City of Reidsville.

Mrs. Thomas is the former city clerk of Reidsville. When she was clerk, her daughter-in-law worked in the office and when her daughter-in-law took maternity leave, Mrs. Thomas gifted her paid sick time to her daughter-in-law, a practice that was completely legal and in accordance with city policy. It happened frequently and with several police officers and other personnel on city payroll. Shortly after gifting her accrued sick time, Mrs. Fountain resigned as clerk and ran for city council. She won and has been serving and is now running for mayor in the November election.

In what seemed like a last ditch effort to humiliate Councilwoman Thomas, the councilman sitting adjacent to  Mayor Rewis, Councilman Virgil Duckworth, called for Mrs. Thomas to be removed from the council and investigated by the GBI. The motion was not seconded and failed. A motion was made for Mrs. Thomas to pay back the sick time she donated to her daughter-in-law, which passed, though the amount is unknown and Attorney Cheney is supposed to report back with an amount soon.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why Mrs. Thomas is being targeted on an issue that took place over four years ago – her grandson who was spoiled with the gift of extended maternity leave with his mother is now four years old. Mrs. Thomas has also had public spats with the Mayor -on record in official minutes – not limited to last week’s confrontation about the Mayor’s boat sitting in the city work shop.

Following the meeting, I approached city attorney Van Cheney to ask him about the executive session. The conversation occurred as follows:

Jessica: Mr. Cheney, are you aware that what just happened in the council meeting by calling executive session without a specific reason was against Georgia law?
Mr. Cheney: I didn’t know that.
Jessica: Aside from the fact that it looks terrible for transparency, you could actually be fined for each person in that room participating in the meeting.
Mr. Cheney: Thank you for your advice.

As the day continued on, the story continued to unfold. It is interesting, to say the least, that Mr. Cheney claimed he was unaware that reasons must be expressly stated in the official meeting minutes because Evans County court records indicate that his brother, Mr. Glen Cheney, represented The Claxton Enterprise in 1999 when the newspaper sued the Evans County Board of Commissioners for wrongfully entering into an executive session and forcing the public out of the room. The case went all the way to the Georgia Court of Appeals where The Claxton Enterprise ultimately prevailed and monetary restitution was awarded. The case was a huge deal in the county and still talked about today.

There’s another point here though. I spoke with several city attorney’s around Georgia and the consensus is the same: The City of Reidsville is walking a very fine line calling Susan Fountain Thomas “personnel.” She is an elected official and cannot be hired or fired by the city council, meaning, she is not under direct supervision of the council. Interestingly enough, the case of The Claxton Enterprise v. Evans County Board of Commissioners, cited the exact same loophole with regard to who is and isn’t personnel. It also fails the public on perception when a specially called executive session is used to target a mayoral candidate.

Another consensus among city attorney’s: The public should not have been excluded from the meeting Monday.

What’s to come is still unknown. I’ve filed open records requests pertaining to some missing money from the city bank accounts as well as a pending contract where the City of Reidsville is planning to buy an office building and land from city attorney Mr. Van Cheney. I also plan to seek sworn affidavits from the councilmen and women on the matters discussed in executive session.

Jessica Szilagyi is a Statewide Contributor for AllOnGeorgia.com. She focuses primarily on state and local politics as well as issues in law enforcement. She has a background in Political Science with a focus in local government and has a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia. Jessica is a "Like It Or Not" contributor for Fox5 in Atlanta and has two blogs of her own: The Perspicacious Conservative and "Hair Blowers to Lawn Mowers."

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