Accusations fly at commission meeting

Unethical behavior, racism alleged

By Tyler H. Jones

tjones@civitasmedia.com

LaGRANGE — Accusations of racism and unethical behavior sent a county commission work session off the rails Friday, marking a departure from the meetings’ normally procedural tone.

The sparring began early in the meeting when Troup County resident Karen Moon of John Lovelace Road addressed the board regarding comments made by Commissioner Tripp Foster of District 3 on social media. The comments in question were made by Foster on the Daily News Facebook page and concerned a May 4 article reporting the commission’s denial of a special-use permit for a personal care facility for veterans on Teaver Road.

“A member of this very board, Tripp Foster, asserted publicly via Facebook that the issue (causing denial of the permit) was indeed about the psychological problems of the veterans who would be living in the community,” Moon said. “Apparently, they were good enough to go and die for you, sir, but not good enough to live in your neighborhood.”

Moon went on to say that Foster verbally denigrated veterans “in a way that was demeaning and beneath the dignity of any public office.”

“In one instance, (Foster stated) that a citizen used his ‘disabled vet card’ like some people use ‘the race card.’ He told other citizens to grow up, and my own personal favorite, ‘zip it,’” Moon said. “It is an embarrassment for someone who represents the citizens of this county to set such a poor example.”

Foster defended his statements and said he did not mean to insult veterans, but felt that the proposed veterans care facility would have been better suited in another location. He said there were inconsistencies with the applicant’s permit request, including the square footage of the home, along with concerns about parking and flood plain proximity.

“Your comments concerning me, and about where I stand with vets, and picking on disabled vets and what not, I believe they are disingenuous,” Foster said. “They’re not complete, they’re not true, and I take great exception to what you said here today. Your statements are totally unfounded.”

The commissioner said he had not seen Moon at any previous public hearing regarding the special-use permit, and noted that the permit’s applicant did not even speak in support of their application during the second public hearing.

“I even offered to partner with the (applicants) to go out and help them try to find somewhere,” Foster said. “I did that in the second meeting, and the (applicants) didn’t even get up and try to defend or fight for their cause. In the second meeting, they didn’t even get up at all when the chairman opened the floor for anybody who was for or against the issue.”

Addressing his Facebook comments, Foster said there were “some hard things that I felt had to be said on that thread.”

“There were some people, some back stories that involved even former employment at this government, and they said some things that were not true toward me, or about me as far as my stance, and I took great offense to that,” Foster said. “I’m sorry that maybe some things got maybe misunderstood between you and I.”

Moon told Foster she objected to him asserting that he has post-traumatic stress disorder, prompting a heated exchange between the two.

“You don’t know what I went through for 28 years of public service,” Foster said.” I’m not even going to go into detail in this forum about what I’ve seen over the years.”

“Are you comparing that to what combat veterans go through?” Moon replied. “Are you comparing your service in this forum to what combat veterans go through?”

“Not as a commissioner,” Foster said. “I did my time before this (working in public safety).”

“Because that is absolutely inappropriate,” Moon said.

“Well, you’re not the person to be correcting me on that, OK?” Foster said.

“I absolutely am,” Moon replied. “I’ll be the one. No, you don’t do that. You tried to do that online. And I’ll be the one that’s casting a ballot today, so I am the one that corrects you, sir.”

The exchange was halted when Jerry Willis, county attorney, said the board “probably needed to move on.”

Chairman Patrick Crews briefly addressed the exchange, and said the board was not opposed to the veterans care facility in theory, but changes would have to be made for a special-use permit to be granted.

“We’re not opposed to (the facility), but there are some things they need to do further for us to approve that,” Crews said. “As far as the comments on Facebook, that is not the representation of the Board of Commissioners. We don’t publicly comment on Facebook. … As far as Board of Commissioners, our message will be delivered to you in these meetings, or in any public meetings we have, or if you want to contact us individually.”

Accusations of racism

Later in the nearly two-hour meeting, as the board was discussing the upcoming budget cycle, Probate Judge Donald Boyd addressed commissioners about his previous request for raises for his three employees in the Probate Office.

County Manager Tod Tentler explained the county is considering a 2 percent raise for all employees, along with a $1,000 increase in all salaries to help offset the rising cost of insurance premiums. He explained this is a “very, very, very tough” budget cycle, with revenues down and expenses on the rise.

“Our employees — I can prove it — are making less today than they were in 2002, compared to everything, the economy, insurance, everything,” Boyd said as he made the case for raises for his employees. “They can go out anywhere and get a job with a whole lot less responsibility, and job security is more, and that’s the problem.”

Crews, along with other commissioners, explained that the county officials didn’t think it was fair to give one department a raise and not others, and thus proposed giving the across-the-board 2 percent to all employees.

Commissioner Richard English chimed in, explaining that the most obvious way to raise revenues in order to give raises would be a tax increase — an idea universally opposed by commissioners.

“See what you have to look at, the only way the county can get money is to raise taxes. So we have to look at everything,” English said.

He paused briefly, then made an accusation that drew an audible reaction from attendees watching the meeting.

“Another thing that’s always bothered me, you don’t believe in hiring black folks,” English said.

“That’s a lie,” Boyd sharply responded.

A back and forth ensued, with the chairman and county attorney trying to regain control of the meeting.

“I don’t want somebody calling me a racist,” Boyd said. “That’s a lie. And I’ll call it a lie if it’s a lie. Now first of all, I have had a black person work in my office that I had to fire. I have had black people in my office.”

Willis, the county attorney, attempted to quell the sparring.

“Mr. Chairman, I’m the parliamentarian for this group, and this is not the proper time or forum to go through this, and I think we should go on to the next budget item. This back and forth is not proper at this meeting.”

“The back and forth was calling me a racist,” Boyd said.

“Judge Boyd, please,” the chairman interjected.

“Can I just add one more then, then I’ll leave?” Boyd asked.

“As long as it has nothing to do with —,” the chairman said before Boyd cut him off.

“It has nothing to do with that,” Boyd said. “You said that you (laid off) 96 employees (two years ago). Tell me how many more you have now from then. I bet you it’s over 100 more. That’s the problem. You keep adding people.

“Actually, we have reduced employees,” Tentler, the county manager, said.

“You can talk about racism all you want to, but I’ve had black folks working there,” Boyd said. “I’m not a racist, and don’t ever call me that.”

Boyd directed his attention to English and said, “You can look at me and laugh all you want to, and you think it’s funny, but I’m not a racist and I don’t want to be called one.”

“We need to move on,” Willis said.

“We’re moving on,” Boyd replied. “What would you do if they called you a racist? Same thing. If you didn’t you, wouldn’t be called a man.”

Boyd left the meeting room shortly after without further comment. Commissioner English also left the room a few minutes after Boyd, and the budget discussion continued.

The next public hearing on the county’s budget cycle is set for Tuesday at 9 a.m. at the commission’s chambers in the Troup County Government Center, 100 Ridley Ave. The hearing is open to the public.

• • •

PARTIAL TRANSCRIPT

Below is a partial transcript of the exchanges detailed in this article. The transcription was taken from a recording of the meeting. The transcript is meant to provide context to the conversations. There may be some typos in this transcript.

First is the exchange between Karen Moon of John Lovelace Road and Commissioner Tripp Foster:

KAREN MOON: The board recently denied a special use permit for a property that was to be converted to a personal care facility for veterans. If the denial of this request had been based on the unsuitability of the building, it would have been within the rights and responsibility of this board. However, the denial was based on recommendations of county staff, who’s stated concern was about the screening process and the potential for psychological issues. Further still, a member of this very board, Tripp Foster, asserted publicly via Facebook that the issue was indeed about the psychological problems of the veterans who would be living in the community. Apparently, they were good enough to go and die for you, sir, but not good enough to live in your neighborhood. Commissioner Foster then proceeded to engage with other veterans in a way that was demeaning and beneath the dignity of any public office. He did not address their complaints or questions. Instead, he launched what amounts to an ad-homonym attack, berating them and their disabilities. In one instance, stating that a citizen used his disabled vet card like some people use the race card. He told other citizens to grow up, and my own personal favorite, “zip it.” It is an embarrassment for someone who represents the citizens of this county to set such a poor example. The message being sent here to veterans is this: we appreciate your sacrifice, but you’re not welcome in our community. I cant hold this board responsible for the ill-informed opinions of the citizens who spoke at this meeting, and they were ill informed, but they board of commissioners should be inclined to hold itself to a higher standard. Georgia law actually requires it. O.C.G.A. 45-10-3 states that officials should never engage in other conduct which is unbecoming of which constitutes a breach of the public trust. Going back to the official records of the board, it seems that when the commissioners wanted to define their own code of ethics, there was only one objection, by Mr. Foster. Who would object to that? I would assert, the only one who is less likely of meeting those standards. As the daughter of a Vietnam vet, I resent his attitude toward veterans. Commissioner Foster, the negative stigma that you have attempted to assign and re-enforce to veterans is what makes the re-integration difficult and painful. You should know, sir, that the probability of a veteran harming himself is much higher than he will harm someone else. That’s a fact. I am ashamed that people will stand before you and cite concerns that veterans, by virtue of their service, are dangerous. I am ashamed that people stand before you and assert that they are sex offenders. Empirical evidence doesn’t support that, but it does support this notion: sex offenders are much more likely to on staff in church bodies nationwide — and they have a screening process. That’s something people don’t like to say out loud, but it’s a hard fact. The word “for profit” was also thrown around like it was a dirty word. I do not believe that government is the solution to our problem with veterans and otherwise. I do not support the notion that solutions come from government alone, but by citizens. Profit is not a dirty work alone, or at least it didn’t used to be. In 2014, the board designated Troup County to be a Purple Heart county, dedicated to recognizing the courage of veterans, showing them the honor and support they have earned. The actions of this board should be congruent with that proclamation. Show, don’t just tell, but show. In conclusion, I would ask that you clarify your own personal positions regarding this matter. The people and the veterans are waiting.

CHAIRMAN PATRICK CREWS: Thank you, Ms. Moon, I appreciate that. I’d like to give the opportunity to anyone who would like to comment on this.

COMMISSIONER TRIPP FOSTER: Yeah, I would like to comment, Mr. Chairman.

CREWS: OK

FOSTER: I’m pretty much at a loss for words, and that’s not normal for me. Ms. Moon, I didn’t notice you at any meeting concerning this that we had publicly about this issue. Had you been there, as intelligent as you seem to be, you would have understood where I stood on the whole issue, because I was quite vocal about all of it here in this government center. Your comments concerning me, and about where I stand with vets, and picking on disabled vets and whatnot, I believe they are disingenuous, they’re not complete, they’re not true, and I take great exception to what you said here today. Your statements are totally unfounded.

MOON: Sir, they were found on a public thread that any of you are welcome to go and read. it has 257 comments

ANGELA MONTONDO (Meeting attendee): Most of which are you.

MOON: Most of which are yours, and you’re antagonizing the citizens. And sir, you don’t tell the people you work for to “zip it.” You work for the people.

FOSTER: When people use profanity and things of that nature, I will tell them that.

MOON: That was a stand-alone comment. That was … that was not directed at (indecipherable).

FOSTER: Ma’am, the statement that I just read aloud, I stand on that.

MOON: That’s fine, and you’re welcome to.

FOSTER: And I do support the veterans and I do support homeless veterans.

MOON: They see that.

FOSTER: Ninety percent of the issues with this that was listed as a homeless veterans shelter, yes, there were neighbors, people that went up in arms. Some of them are very uneducated as to the whole picture of what it was all about. Once we had our public meetings, 90 percent plus was strictly on the housing, on the land, on the flood zone, on the problem. There were things listed saying it was it was 1,700 square feet, but it was actually 1,096 square feet. The multiple drive ways, the subdivisions that fed off it. According to Mr. Calvin Smith, and his wife, they were the ones that brought this forward, and it was a for-profit venture, OK? They said that they needed a nice, tranquil place, and I said, ‘well, I’ve been living in that area for over 16 years and that is a very busy road, multiple drive ways, several subdivisions and it also feeds several other subdivisions off the Newton Road area. I said a more suitable place to me would seem like a more rural place where it’s quiet, the air is clean and whatnot, and I even offered to partner with the Smiths to go our and help them try to find somewhere. I did that in the second meeting, and the Smiths didn’t even get up and try to defend or fight for their cause. In the second meeting, they didn’t even get up at all when the chairman opened the floor for anybody who was for or against the issue. There were some hard things that I felt had to be said on that thread. More specifically, at two people, and it wasn’t you at the beginning that they were geared towards. There were some people, some back stories that involved even former employment at this government and they said some things that were not true toward me, or about me, as far as my stance, and I took great offense to that, and I’m sorry that maybe somethings got maybe misunderstood between you and I.

MOON: It would be very difficult to misunderstand you’re using your disability like some people use the race card.

FOSTER: That wasn’t aimed at veterans. That was aimed at one person, specifically —

MOON/MONTONDO (indecipherable which): He is a veteran

FOSTER: Well, he got backed into a corner with facts —

MOON/MONTONDO (indecipherable which): No, he did not.

FOSTER: — and he used his disabled veterans status to try to come out of that corner and that was exactly what my statement was aimed at, and no one else.

MOON: Like I said, I just invite you all to go read, and also you should know that this has been shared with veterans groups and your comments have actually been shared quite a few times across the United States to veterans. They understand. If you don’t know what PTSD is, and you don’t know what a combat vet has been through, you shouldn’t speak to it. I’ve lived with my father.

FOSTER: I don’t believe the thread was about PTSD. It got turned into that.

MOON: You said, ‘forgive me, I have PTSD.’

FOSTER: You don’t know what I went through for 28 years of public service. I’m not even going to go into detail in this forum about what I’ve seen over the years. There’s some people that’s got …

MOON: Are you comparing that to what combat veterans go through? Are you comparing your service in this forum to what combat veterans go through?

FOSTER: Not as a commissioner, I did my time before this.

MOON: Because that is absolutely inappropriate.

FOSTER: Well, you’re not the person to be correcting me on that, OK?

MOON: I absolutely am. I’ll be the one. No, you don’t do that. You tried to do that online. And I’ll be the one that’s casting a ballot today, so I am the one that corrects you, sir.

FOSTER: OK, thank you.

COUNTY ATTORNEY JERRY WILLIS: Mr. Chairman, we probably need to move on.

CREWS: Let me say real quick, I appreciate that. I think I will speak for the other commissioners, and I know, and respect Commissioner English, who is a veteran, was stationed down at Fort Stewart. We had that conversation about a week or two ago. Let me clarify one thing. I was very worried that the story would get out that we were opposed to veterans. I hated using the term homeless veterans because I felt like the application that they have applied for was a personal care home, and I truly understand the concept of a personal care home, since I manage one. We, as a Board of Commissioners, are not opposed to working with that group. I would personally (offer), outside of this meeting, to help them. We are not opposed, and we asked the family, the individuals to go back and work on their plans and revisit those. As far as the commissioners and how we view that facility, we’re not opposed to it, but there are some things they need to do further for us to approve that. As far as the comments on Facebook, that is not the representation of the board of commissioners. We don’t publicly comment on Facebook. I know there’s comments made in the past about ethics legislation in the past, but on the advice of our attorney, we have chosen not to go that route. As far as Board of Commissioners, our message will be delivered to you in these meetings, or in any public meetings we have, or if you want to contact us individually. Thank y’all for very much.

— — — END OF TRANSCRIPT, MEETING CONTINUES — — —

Second is the exchange between Probate Judge Donald Boyd and Commissioner Richard English:

COUNTY MANAGER TOD TENTLER: We have in the budget, 1 F-250 truck for the roads department at $29,000. We have $5,000 for the sheriff’s department so he can get that third vehicle that he has in his regular budget. We have the $35,000 for the juvenile court judge to make him a full-time judge. We have $24,000 for a car for the property appraisal office, and they are going to turn in three old, battered cars. We have $2,150 in the public defender for operations. We have an F-150 truck in the Marshal’s Office for $21,737. We have $3,300 for Keep Troup Beautiful, and we have a one percent increase in salaries beginning January 1 … on top of the $1,000 raise for each employee to help off-set some of the costs we’re going to have in our insurance. That total there is $208,187. With that, that leaves us a contingency of $166,000. We would like to take $88,000 of that $166,000 and make that a 2 percent increase on January 1 on top of the $1,000, which would leave us with $88,000 in contingency in the budget. As you can see, there’s a lot of items that we weren’t able to fund. There were a lot of requests for reclassifications of employees. it’s my opinion and the opinion of most of the department heads that we have so many people that are underpaid, we decided to address everybody as a whole instead of just individual departments and individual people. So that is what we have put in the budget and I think after that I’ll let buddy give you an update of how he’s put together the budget and you can ask any questions, add or subtract anything you don’t think is warranted for the budget.

COMMISSIONER MORRIS JONES: I have a question. On the $1,000, is that going to be considered a bonus, or is that considered …

TENTLER: It’s going to be added to their salary.

JONES: OK

COMMISSIONER TRIPP FOSTER: For every year, or just a one-time supplement?

TENTLER: No, it’ll be continually.

FOSTER: OK

CREWS: So it’s $1,000 that will be given to them over the 12 months.

TENTLER: Yeah, 26 pay periods.

CHAIRMAN PATRICK CREWS: OK, 26 pay periods, that $1,000 will be divided up, which is a permanent increase in the salary every year.

TENTLER: Correct.

JONES: That’s what I wanted to know, whether that was a permanent increase or a bonus.

SHERIFF JAMES WOODRUFF: And that starts in July?

TENTLER: That starts July 1. That’s our recommendation, proposed budget.

COUNTY CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER BUDDY CASHWELL: That’s to offset some of the costs of the premiums that went up.

FOSTER: So it’s about $20 more a week, there abouts.

(Brief discussion on math.)

PROBATE JUDGE DONALD BOYD: I think it’s $19.62 a week.

COUNTY ATTORNEY JERRY WILLIS: Are you operating off a computer, judge?

BOYD: No, sir, I’d already figured that up. I wish I had that (indecipherable). Can I ask a question?

TENTLER: Sure

BOYD: Y’all said the $1,000 was to off-set the insurance. How much is the insurance going up?

TENTLER: The insurance is going up 4 percent. If you’re a family covered person, it’ll pretty much be a wash, if you’re other it’ll be a gain for you. That’s why we want to have the percentage raise on top of that.

BOYD: Can I ask another question?

TENTLER: Sure

BOYD: I had asked for a grade level —

TENTLER: Yes

BOYD: — change. From your opening statement, are y’all not going to do that?

TENTLER: That is not in the budget at this time because we have so many of those throughout the county.

BOYD: It’s been like this — you know, back in 2002, y’all were going to do that, but never did do it.

TENTLER: Well, it’s a thing that I’ve been trying to address, the board is trying to address, but we have to take all employees and treat all employees fairly.

BOYD: I agree. That’s why I’m asking for the increase. We’ve got other departments that are overpaid, and our department is underpaid, compared to the responsibility and the job duties.

TENTLER: I understand that’s —

BOYD: And we did that back in 2002, and it never has been addressed since then. You’re saying you’re going to do that again?

TENTLER: I don’t know, I wasn’t here in 2002.

BOYD: Well, I was. I think Morris (Jones) was. He said he was here, and remembered. But it was (Lavelle Barnes?) But that doesn’t really matter, but the county said they were going to address the employees back in 2002.

COMMISSIONER MORRIS JONES: In 2002, judge, we addressed the way that — somehow, that the county manager —

BOYD: No, you didn’t.

JONES: At the time, they had something like an alphabet for increases for salary and the University of Georgia came in and compared what we were doing with the system that we had and the system that we went to was a little bit better because — OK, I’m not going to say it. I’m just telling you what happened when the University of Georgia came in —

BOYD: I was here. I gave them a whole list of all our responsibilities, all that we do. My chief clerk is underpaid more than any county close to our size, and our clerks. Y’all told me that if I could do that, show you were like counties were more than us, then y’all would look at it. Well, y’all looked at it. But anybody can look at it. But this has been needing to be done since I got here in 2000. This is 2015, 2016, and 2002 didn’t chance a thing. Now you’re saying instead of 2016, its going to be 2017, maybe. And you’re saying you’re going to give us a $1,000 raise, but you’re going to raise your insurance up 4 percent. That don’t sound too sweet.

JONES: The employees are getting a $1,000 raise plus a 2 percent raise on top of that, is that correct?

TENTLER: That’s what we’re recommending, correct.

BOYD: Our employees, I can prove it, are making less today than they were in 2002, compared to everything, the economy, insurance, everything. They can go out anywhere and get a job with a whole lot less responsibility and job security is more, and that’s the problem. The sheriff is training people for other folks. I’m training people for other folks and the citizens of the county are paying for that. I can’t understand why y’all don’t want to fix that. It’s just a basic need, and you either pay for it now, or pay for it later.

CREWS: Tod, refresh my memory. A 1 percent raise is about $200,000 a year?

TENTLER: Correct, roughly. About $190,000 a year.

CREWS: Judge Boyd, i think that’s the issue. I come in and look at the budget, and we’ve had no increase in revenues. Actually a decrease in revenues. Our costs have gone up, and truly, if we don’t come up with more revenue, or we cut expenses, where do we come up with the $200,000 or $400,000?

BOYD: You take some of these new projects that wasn’t here in 2002, pay the employees that were here in 2002, and then when you get more revenue, then you can do these projects.

CREWS: OK, give me a specific project.

BOYD: I don’t have them. You didn’t ask me to do that last time.

CREWS: OK, can you furnish us with some projects over the next week that you think we could cut?

BOYD: You can cut a lot of it in my opinion.

CREWS: That’s the issue the commissioners are faced with. I get asked here around town, ‘how are you going to increase salaries?’ Nobody — we all struggle with what we would cut to make up the difference.

BOYD: But the problem is what you add. From 2002, think of all the departments and resources you’ve added. But you don’t want to take them away once you’ve added them.

JONES: We cut 96 employees. We cut 96 employees, what, two years ago from the budget?

BOYD: You didn’t give me none.

JONES: Because of the revenue.

BOYD: My revenue has doubled —

JONES: The revenue has gone down.

BOYD: — we’re not a revenue office. We’re a service office. Out of gun permits, we issued almost 2,500 of them last y