Thursday’s county commission meeting was further evidence of what appears to be a growing schism with former chairman Steve Brown and Randy Ognio on one side and David Barlow, Pota Coston and new chairman Charles Oddo on the other. A debate over policy and procedure became a long and tense exchange, as Brown felt he was being prevented from speaking on a particular issue by Oddo, Barlow and Coston.
Brown had drafted a resolution on H.B. 170, a transportation bill currently in the Georgia House that has drawn significant attention for its potential effects on revenues for cities and boards of education in particular. His resolution was put on the original agenda for the meeting, but Oddo said the other commissioners had not been made aware of Brown’s planned Powerpoint presentation until Thursday morning, the day of the meeting.
Oddo said he felt it was an issue of professional courtesy and ethics that Brown should have informed all commissioners about his intentions to do a presentation sooner so that they would all have more time to read and research the supporting documents. Oddo and Brown went back and forth for a while with Oddo repeatedly interrupting Brown when he felt he was straying off topic and, at one point, slamming his gavel to quiet Brown.
The 3-2 divide on the commission has been apparent since Chairman Brown was replaced in January as chairman after two years in the role. At the time, Brown lashed at new commissioner Pota Coston’s apparent unlikely alliance with David Barlow, who found himself in a controversy last year for public comments comparing Democrats to demons and for some controversial posts on his Facebook page. After being replaced as chairman by the votes of Oddo, Barlow, and Coston, Brown sent the following comment to media:
“It was a surreal moment watching Commissioner Barlow who bashes ‘the Blacks’ in front of his colleagues saying they are all obese, lacking concern over human life and killing their babies, all on government assistance with no work ethic in addition to his comments that Democrat women, in particular, are all ugly and Democrats, in general, are all demon possessed and evil and then watch a new African-American Democrat female join forces with him on the creation of new officers, not something you would have expected to see after so much hullabaloo over creating a minority voting district and protecting civil rights.”
Ognio supported Brown after he was replaced, saying the decision may not have been made “for the right reasons.” He also supported Brown Thursday, insisting he should be allowed to give his presentation. Instead, the resolution was tabled to the March 10 commission meeting.
Brown claimed that he was told earlier in the day by Chairman Oddo that he would not be allowed to deliver his presentation. In response, Brown printed multiple copies of the slides and distributed them to members of the audience and the media, saying this was the presentation “you aren’t allowed to see.”
The details of the resolution, H.B. 170, were obscured by a lengthy back and forth over whether Brown should be allowed to present based on county policies.
County Administrator Steve Rapson said Brown’s resolution, which included supporting documentation, was submitted within the appropriate deadline to make it onto a commission agenda but that several other documents, mostly news articles on H.B. 170, had been sent later and that the Powerpoint presentation had only been submitted the day of the meeting. He said his professional staff has a strict deadline for submitting materials related to an upcoming meeting but that for items initiated by commissioners there is “some discretion.”
Brown said commissioners frequently received documents even on the dais at meetings, and it never led to tabling items, and he also said supporting news articles he’d included after the apparent deadline were written after that deadline and thus could not have been submitted sooner. Brown took multiple jabs at the commissioners for trying to control what he could say.
“So the board decides what I have to say or what I don’t say. Do we have to have a secret meeting behind the scenes to decide what I’m allowed to talk about?” Brown said.
“Commissioner Brown, excuse me, tabling does not mean that we will not discuss this, tabling means exactly what was said. One commissioner, possibly two, have not had time to review this and they’d like to have time,” Oddo replied, and repeatedly shut down Brown’s responses, saying they did not relate to the motion on the table, which was to table the resolution to the next meeting.
Ognio came to Brown’s defense and said the commission should change its policy if necessary to allow topics like this to be discussed. Part of the argument from Brown and Ognio was that H.B. 170 could be voted on in the House prior to March 10, potentially nullifying the value of a resolution stating the county’s position.
“The fact is, the material’s been there, it was in the agenda packet. And this is time sensitive, because if we don’t sign this and pass this, we don’t get to send this down there before they sign the bill,” Ognio said. “Why some of these commissioners say they’re unprepared for this when they’ve had this information since last friday, I don’t know.”
Coston, who put forward the motion to table Brown’s resolution, and who would not budge from that position, said that she had not had enough time to review all the materials for Brown’s presentation and also said that H.B. 170 itself was “changing constantly, every day.” She also pointedly addressed that this was the second time she’d received materials for a meeting the day of and that she was available “tomorrow” if Brown would like to talk to her about the issue, seemingly echoing Oddo’s point that Brown had not properly communicated with the other commissioners.
Coston would not, however, entertain the idea put forth next by Brown that the commission could hold a special called meeting early next week to vote on the matter so that a resolution might be passed prior to a vote on the bill in the House.
Brown went off in his commissioner comments at the end of the meeting, saying the other board members were selectively enforcing policies to shut him down.
“I have had documents submitted to me five minutes before a meeting starts, nobody made an issue. Guess what, this is the United States of America. You can vote against something at a meeting. If you don’t like it and don’t feel like you have enough information, then vote it down. But for God’s sake, give it a chance,” Brown said, and compared the situation to his two years as chairman when he said everyone had “totally uninhibited free speech. That’s changed.”
He went on to compare the current direction of the commission unfavorably to the former regime.
“I just pray that we’re not going to end up in a situation where we start voting people’s items off agendas, we start saying you can’t have this and that. We had that. Everybody remember the Frady, Hearn and Horgan days? They voted my items right off the agenda. Let’s not go back there ladies and gentlemen,” Brown said to the crowd.
Oddo disagreed that the commission had been trying to prevent Brown from speaking, and again said that Brown had not communicated appropriately with the other commissioners.
“There has not been a change in policies. Nobody was cut off, nobody will be cut off. But I expect the Board of Commissioners to follow the protocol that we’ve set up. If we don’t communicate among ourselves then you’ll see more of this,” Oddo said. “I apologize to everyone tonight that had to see this, because this is not the way it should be. There was ample opportunity to bring this to the other commissioners, we’re all available to listen. Whoever calls me on my cell phone, 99-percent of the time I answer. Next board meeting we’ll have a proposal to discuss, as it should be.”
Oddo also told the audience not to “wait on us,” before contacting their representatives about H.B. 170.