Recently, Newton County government unveiled its Strategic Plan for the future. Among its goals is to “cultivate a culture of trust.” The Board of Commissioners made a mockery of that goal when they approved the purchase of more property in the Nelson Heights Community at a special called meeting on June 27.
At their regular meeting on June 18, the BOC voted to table this purchase and reconsider it at their August meeting. It was obvious then that some commissioners had not been given all the background about the purchase at their executive session.
The 1.9-acre lot being purchased is across Laseter Street from the Nelson Heights Community Center, long operated by the Henderson family. The land is owned by the Rising Son Christian Church of which Commissioner J.C. Henderson is or was a prominent member. Henderson claimed the property is needed for recreational facilities to be funded by SPLOST. However, the county already owns 14 acres and the city owns another 54 acres on that same street, which means more property is not necessary.
The church property was independently appraised for $17,000-19,100 but the county agreed to pay $30,000 for it. According to the County’s Forensic Report of 2016, Rising Son Church and Commissioner Henderson sold nearby property to the county in 2014 with a $11,000 lien still attached. The report also stated that the church owed $3,000 for rental of the Nelson Heights Center. In short, taxpayers lost about $14,000, which should have been considered when the offer was made for the 1.9 acres. That did not happen.
As stated earlier, the BOC wisely decided at its June 18 regular meeting to table the purchase for more study. Fast forward to June 26, and the BOC announced a special called meeting for June 27. The announced agenda said “Property Acquisition” with no further details. Interested citizens had to dig for information about the special meeting to finally learn that the Nelson Heights acquisition was to be reconsidered because Chairman Marcello Banes had already signed a contract agreeing to the $30,000 purchase. The BOC apparently had to act on the contract in an open meeting within 30 days. The public was not given that information at the June 18 meeting.
With a one-day public notice and a vague meeting agenda, the BOC voted 3 to 2 to approve the purchase of the Rising Son Church property. Only six citizens were present to witness this breach of the public trust. Commissioners Nancy Schulz and Stan Edwards voted no due to legitimate concerns about the price and the need for the property. Commissioners Henderson, Demond Mason and Ronnie Cowan voted to buy it. Mr. Cowan even admitted that he was likely going against the wishes of his District 5 constituents. And, yes, Henderson voted despite an obvious conflict of interest.
The 2020 elections will soon be here. Let’s remember these actions when the time comes to vote.
— Larry McSwain