Updated Thursday to add response from Georgia Attorney General’s office.
In their determined effort to handpick Jeff Chapman to be county manager, four Glynn County commissioners have excluded the public as well as their three commission colleagues from deliberations, skirting and perhaps violating Georgia law.
The four commissioners – Cap Fendig, Sammy Tostensen, Walter Rafolski and Chairman Wayne Neal – have since April tried to bypass a formal hiring process that cost taxpayers almost $50,000 and instead appoint the county’s 62-year-old tax commissioner. This is despite the fact that Chapman does not meet the qualifications approved by the commissioners in the open job search.
Records made available to The Current show that between July 13 and Aug 19, Fendig, Tostensen, Rafolski and Neal intensified their private campaign to advance Chapman’s candidacy anyway. Those efforts culminated in a draft contract promising Chapman $225,000 a year in salary, 1,280 hours of personal leave, a $45,000 infusion into his retirement account and a $750 a month car allowance.
The Board of Commissioners could vote on Chapman’s candidacy as early as Thursday at its regular meeting. With a majority of the seven-member board apparently supporting him, the vote could be a foregone conclusion, pending any legal challenges.
Even though commissioners are prohibited by Georgia law from conducting county business outside of formal meetings, an Aug. 8 email reviewed by The Current suggests that the four Chapman supporters worked together to ensure he got the job.
Without the knowledge of fellow commissioners Allen Booker, David O’Quinn or Bill Brunson, the four commissioners apparently had reached contractual terms with Chapman before going public on Aug 19, according to emails and texts reviewed by The Current.
“I followed up on our original meeting at the Casino and then met with Jeff Chapman,” Commissioner Cap Fendig wrote in Aug. 8 message sent to the three fellow commissioners and Jeff Kilgore, a local activist.
“We discussed clearly the obstacles that needed to be overcome I also had him contact (County Attorney) Aaron (Mumford) to discuss the obstacles. I was clear what term was non-negotiable from Jeff,” Fendig continued. “I clearly presented that to the Commissioners and they were not acceptable of that offer by Jeff. That offer/condition was not accepted by the commission.”
Georgia law demands that public servants conduct official business in a method that makes deliberations accessible to the public. State courts have ruled that a board may be found in violation of the open meetings law by participating in a “virtual meeting” if public business is discussed by a quorum of the board via telephone, internet, or written poll, and the notice and other requirements of the open meetings law are not observed. That guidance is available in a handbook provided county officials by the Association of County Commissioners in Georgia.
Richard T. Griffiths, a board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, believes that the four commissioners’ actions may have violated the letter or spirit of this open meetings law. The law concerns meetings by public officials whether in person, or virtual, as well as other forms of communication, such as phone calls.
“This is unacceptable,” Griffiths said about the commissioners’ deliberations. “And it’s very disappointing for Glynn County residents. Under Georgia’s Sunshine laws, these commissioners are supposed to conduct public business in public at meetings with appropriate notice. It’s also incredible that these commissioners excluded the other three commissioners to do all this.”
The Georgia Attorney General’s office responded early Thursday to The Current’s request for comment with a brief note from Shawn Conroy, communications and outreach coordinator: “The Office has been contacted about this matter and it is under review.”
The four commissioners declined to answer detailed questions from The Current about the legality of their deliberations.
A quorum in Glynn County would be four of the seven commissioners.
Neal, the commission’s chairman, denied that the four commissioners had met in person about Chapman’s candidacy. “In talking to Mr. Chapman, we spoke individually and at different times regarding a contract coming forward,” Neal wrote in an email to The Current.
The three commissioners who have consistently opposed Chapman have complained that they were excluded from whatever conversations took place.
“I had not been privy to any kind of contract and didn’t even know there was one,” Brunson, the commission’s former chairman, told The Current. “As far as Jeff Chapman goes, it’s a done deal. Four guys got together and pulled the trigger.”
Neal said the county was preparing a fuller response to The Current’s inquiry, but as of Wednesday afternoon, no further reply was forthcoming.
At regularly scheduled meetings, the Glynn County Board of Commissioners routinely adjourns public meetings and enters a private session to discuss personnel matters or pending litigation. In their campaign to get Chapman the senior management position, the four commissioners relied on a different playbook, according to text messages and emails reviewed by The Current.
Finding a new county manager became paramount in February, when Alan Ours, the longtime county manager, announced his resignation. Although he indicated he would remain on the job for six months, he was fired on April 1, shortly after the commissioners contracted a recruitment firm to find his replacement.
Ours, a veteran public administrator, was paid $181,700 per year, had a $500 car allowance and 160 hours of personal leave. He is currently the manager for Lumpkin County.
While the search firm was collecting resumes, Commissioner Tostensen approached Chapman in April about the job.
On May 10, Chapman texted Tostensen to say he wanted to pursue the position, “I would like to followthrough with negotiating an agreement in the event I am chosen to serve,” he wrote. “Of course the full BOC would eventually have their input and or say.”
However, Chapman did not declare himself a candidate until the close of a search, which certainly would have excluded him because he lacked the advertised qualifications.
The four commissioners first confirmed Chapman as their choice at a meeting on July 1. In doing so, they bypassed two qualified women selected by the search firm, which had been paid $17,000 for its expertise.
However, before they could officially vote, Chapman withdrew because of his concerns about the contract.
The job search stalled until August. Then, the four commissioners’ private campaign to woo Chapman kicked into top gear, although publicly they had engaged a second firm to find new candidates.
The second recruitment firm, which signed a $30,0000 contract, identified an experienced and qualified candidate – who again was set aside by the four commissioners.
On Aug. 7, Fendig texted Chapman, confirming that he wanted the job and saying that he was expecting an email “with the terms.” Chapman responded: “Yes, I do have what we discussed in writing. I will send it to you now, I am available to drive over to the island to go over it and answer questions.”
The Board of Commissioners held special sessions on Aug. 5, Aug. 10 and Aug. 17, although it is unknown what was discussed. The meetings of those minutes are scheduled to be approved on the Sept. 2 board meeting, and until then are unavailable for public review.
On Aug. 18, private discussions between Fendig and Chapman indicate that employment negotiations were already well underway. In a text to the tax commissioner, Fendig wrote that he was tracking the progress of a draft contract.
“So, I sent email to (County Attorney) Aaron (Mumford) since I couldn’t get him on the phone and asked if there was anything illegal,” Fendig texted.
“Hadn’t heard back. Has he called or talked to your attorney or you? I think we are having some pushback.”
He and Chapman then agreed in an exchange of texts to an afternoon meeting at the Coastal Kitchen restaurant.
On Aug. 19, Chapman reappeared as the sole finalist for the county manager job at the end of a long regular commission meeting. The commission voted 4-3 to approve his nomination.
The next day, Fendig texted Chapman, informing Chapman that three officials who voted against him had not been provided a copy of the contract. “The chairman should be responsible (for informing the others) but last time that didn’t seem to work,” Fendig wrote.
He also expressed continued support for the longtime local politician. “So I’m making sure we don’t mess up,” he wrote. “How can I help us move forward?”
Fendig has refused to comment on the matter, citing pending negotiations.
On Aug 21, Chapman emailed the contract to Fendig, Neal and Mumford, the county attorney and acting county manager. Chapman also wrote a letter that implied clearly that the contract represented terms agreed upon by Neal, Fendig, Tostensen and Rafolski prior to the public meeting.
“Per their request and prior to the (BOC) meeting last Thursday, I provided a draft copy of this Agreement to Chairman Neal, Vice Chairman Fendig, and to Commissioner Rafolski and Tostensen.
“All of the benefits and compensation amounts have been agreed to as well as the substantive terms of the Agreement. As per the (BOC) motion, I am providing this Agreement to you for your review as County Attorney.”
Chapman has not responded to a detailed list of questions from The Current related to his conversations with commissioners about the job offer.
On Aug. 22, Fendig wrote in an email to fellow commissioner Booker that he had received a copy of Chapman’s contract in the afternoon before the Aug 19 commission meeting.
Fendig also indicated that he and Neal, Tostensen and Rafolski had consulted in private on Chapman’s candidacy. “I told the chairman, Sammy and Walter early on that if they wanted to bring Jeff back, they needed to work on an acceptable agreement,” Fendig wrote.
On Aug. 24 The Current first reported the terms of the contract, sparking a public backlash against the commissioners.
Since then, the commissioners and Chapman have asserted that the contract – written by Chapman’s attorney – represented only a starting point.
Griffiths suggested that Glynn residents consult the Georgia Attorney General’s office on the matter.