Nineteen employees of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources were paid to attend the funeral service of DNR Commissioner Mark Williams’ mother-in-law on Thursday in Jesup.

Carolyn Arnold Harris, 80, died Tuesday. She was a retired nurse who lived most of her life in Wayne County, according to her obituary. Williams is married to her daughter Pam.

Mark Williams Credit: Ga DNR

The Commissioner did not request staff attendance at the service, said DNR spokesman Donald Kirkland. Instead, Deputy Director Walter Rabon spoke with division directors and asked them each to designate up to five employees to attend the service.

“Ms. Harris was a longtime supporter of the Department and its mission,” Kirkland wrote in an email. “Approximately 20 DNR employees were in attendance at the celebration of life today to show our support.”

Kirkland pointed to the DNR’s standard operating procedure #610, issued two years ago, to provide guidelines for the staffers attending funerals.

“Ms. Harris is categorized as immediate family,” Kirkland wrote in an email. “Each division was authorized to designate five employees to represent their division, per SOP guidelines.”

Deputy Commissioner Walter Rabon echoed Kirkland’s reply in an emailed statement Monday: “Ms. Harris was a long-time supporter of the DNR. While DNR is a state agency, it is routinely referred to as a family. We support each other in times of loss or need. In accordance with the DNR SOP #610, I felt it appropriate to have each division represented at last week’s celebration of life to show our support.” 

The guidelines state “DNR recognizes the need of employees to attend various events/ceremonies. As needed, managers/designees will identify employees who will officially represent the agency.”

It does not indicate how many employees will be identified as agency representatives.

The guidelines require employees who experience a death of an immediate family member to use sick leave to attend their services. But designated representatives are paid for their attendance: “Only those employees who are designated as official representatives will be considered on state business and authorized to represent the agency on state time and travel in state vehicles,” the document states. It includes in-laws as immediate family.

The employees who attended are paid an average of $32/hour and spent about three hours each traveling to and attending the service for a total value of their time at about $1,800. They included park managers, game wardens and wildlife technicians. Kirkland noted that they are all salaried employees.

“So you can you can calculate that total,” he said. “But in actuality, their primary job responsibilities are being fulfilled. So there’s no at no additional cost to the state.”

William Perry, the founder of the group Georgia Ethics Watchdogs noted, “Nineteen was a lot of people,” and their attendance “didn’t pass the smell test.”

“It’s unfortunate, because we’re talking about a death and a funeral,” Perry said. “But
it just seems too much. It just seems like an abuse of taxpayer dollars, rather than people who wanted to go paying tribute. Because I know, if I’m in that situation, and I want to go and I want to support my boss, I’m taking sick leave or whatever allowable leave there is where there’s a deduction from my time.”

Along with the Commissioner’s office, the DNR has five divisions: Wildlife Resources Division, Coastal Resources Division, Law Enforcement Division, Environmental Protection Division and Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites Division. Its 2023 fiscal year budget is $333 million.

Williams became DNR Commissioner in 2010, after Gov. Sonny Perdue nominated him. He previously represented the 178th district in the State House of Representatives from 2006-2010 and is a former high school teacher and football coach.  He is the co-owner of Harris Real Estate in Jesup and a veteran of the Army National Guard. His pay as commissioner was $175,000 last year.

Rabon has served in the DNR since 1993, mainly in the Law Enforcement Division. Williams named Rabon as deputy commissioner in 2015. HIs salary is $150,000 annually. He was suspended in 2017 after the Georgia State Patrol charge him with DUI and discovered 14 bottles of moonshine in the Corvette he was driving, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported at the time.

Mary Landers covers Coastal Georgia’s environment for The Current, a topic she covered for nearly 24 years at the Savannah Morning News, where she began and ended her time there writing about health,...