The Clayton County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 last Tuesday to strip Chairman Jeffrey Turner of the power to approve high-dollar county spending, cut the public comment period from 3 minutes per speaker for 30 minutes near the beginning of the meeting to 2 minutes per speaker for 20 minutes near the end of the meeting, and accused Turner of approving county funding to pay for former Chief Financial Officer Ramona Bivins’ doctoral studies at Vanderbilt University. According to Bivins’ LinkedIn page, she is enrolled in Vanderbilt Peabody College, which offers several Ph.D. programs related to education management and public policy.
Bivins’ 2019 contract, which is on the BOC’s website, contains a clause that the county pay for “travel and subsistence expenses of Employee for short courses, institutes, and seminars that are necessary for the Employee’s Professional development and for the good of the Employer.”
Nothing in Clayton County’s Code of Ordinances, which includes the county ethics code, prohibits the county from paying appointed department heads’ tuition expenses.
The Clayton Crescent obtained Bivins’ personnel file through an Open Records Request. It showed she had received strong evaluations and a series of merit pay raises over the past several years.
Bivins reported directly to Turner, who wrote the evaluations. The wording changed little from year to year, noting Bivins’ reliability, strong communication skills, and her ability to “meet with anyone” and make complicated points clear. The reviews also noted that Bivins was “a good steward of the counties [sic] finances,” that she steered board members clear of any problems, and that she was skilled at balancing the county’s budget. Her most recent evaluation in March 2022 scored her performance as “above average,” meriting a 3.75% pay raise:
Despite her strong track record, Bivins’ contract was not renewed, and the three commissioners who voted to fire her have yet to state publicly any reason why.
On June 21, District 1 Commissioner Alieka Anderson made a motion to accept a resolution calling for recommendations for the county’s auditor, Mauldin and Jenkins LLC, “to provide recommendations for independent accounting firms for the purposes of investigating payments made on behalf of the former Clayton County Chief Financial Officer, Ramona Bivins, to Vanderbilt University.”
No copy of the actual resolution appeared in the online agenda packet for the June 21 meeting. They were voted on because they had been listed on the agenda and read “by the respective department,” County Clerk Courtney Rushin told The Clayton Crescent Monday. Usually, the texts of proposed ordinances app in the public agenda packet.
“I just wanted to let everyone know that this was brought to my attention,” Anderson said, “and I wanted to—we have some questions on whether there was any types of funds that were used inappropriately, and we want to make sure that the taxpayers’ money is being used the proper way. So that is why I brought this motion forward.”
“This looks like a witch hunt”
District 4 Commissioner DeMont Davis said, “Last meeting, I asked what justifications were there to not renew Ms. Bivins’ contract, and the room went silent. I’m still wondering, what is the justification for that, as well as this? If we don’t get clarification on why she was removed, to me, this looks like a witch hunt based off of—”
“Point of order,” Franklin interjected.
“Let me finish. Based off of simple ‘I don’t like you.'”
County Attorney Charles Reed said, “Um, I would recommend that, if there is discussion on a previous personnel matter, that that would occur in executive session—”
“Exactly,” Davis said.
“—as opposed to in public.”
“Exactly,” Davis said. “I 100 percent agree. And when this was brought to the attention, I received no e-mail, no phone call, nor did we have a discussion about her lack of job performance in executive session.”
Franklin replied, “Point of order. This board has a responsibility to not put ourselves in a liable state. This board does not operate under one authority, it operates as a body of an authority. And the majority of this board made a vote. And once that vote was made, then what happens is if we have this discussion and continue it, then it negates the body, the majority of the body. To my point for asking for the point of order, is that we do not put ourselves in a situation out here on this dais. So once again, please understand that all personnel matters should be discussed in executive session. I believe there was a code of conduct that was passed once before, to bring the entire board up to date on what can be stated on this dais, and what cannot, in line with our duties as commissioners to protect this county. Both citizens and fiduciary.”
The resolution passed 3-2, with Turner and Davis voting nay.
Cuts to chair’s powers, public comment time
Next, the BOC took up Ordinance 2022-133, which cuts public comment time by one-third and moves the public comment period back near the end of meetings. Franklin moved to accept the ordinance, while Anderson seconded. No copy of that ordinance was appended to the online meeting packet as of press time.
“My question to you, Mr. Reed,” Turner said. “What exactly is this resolution, or ordinance, rather? What does it do?”
Reed said the ordinance did “a number of things. First, it changes the length of time for people to speak from three to two [minutes], and has it moved from 30 to 20 [minutes], so it’ll still be a total of ten people who can speak, but the time period will be two minutes per person. It also sets forth a standard of what can be said at public comment, to speak to items that are related to the items on the agenda. It also repeats the standard for demeanor and refraining from personal attacks on members of the governing body. It also moves public comment to the slot right prior to executive session.”
Turner said, “So it takes it from the beginning of the agenda and places it at the end.”
“It places it at prior to executive session, if that is going to be the end part,” Reed replied.
“It’s taking it back where it once was,” Hambrick said.
Public comment a longtime flashpoint
The public comment period was moved to earlier in the regular meeting after a long fight between citizens and the board. In 2017, the BOC had cut off the video livestream during public comment. Opponents of the move accused Hambrick and then-Commissioners Sonna Singleton Gregory and Michael Edmondson of trying to stifle public criticism. After protests by Organized Clayton and others, the board voted in August 2018 to resume televised public comment but voted to put it near the end of the meeting. Opponents said putting public comment late in the meeting, especially after long meetings that included zoning matters, discouraged people who had to work or put their children to bed from staying and taking part. Later, the public comment period was put back to where it had been near the beginning of the agenda.
“So again, I was one of those who fought to have it placed at the beginning of the agenda, simply because I value the citizens’ input on matters before we vote on them,” Turner said. “and to be able to hear what citizens might have to say on a particular item is valuable to me. But that’s just me and my one vote. But still, the citizens’ input is valuable, and I think it still should remain at the beginning of the agenda.”
Franklin said, “The citizens’ voice and their vote is very valuable. And each one of these board members that I know of, we have meetings, we meet with folks, we have quarterly meetings, we have bimonthly meetings, we are accessible, and at the end of the day, we are here to serve. But as I have spoken to others throughout this state, we have to understand that with every freedom and every right comes a responsibility, as well. And so with that being stated, we did try the other way, but at the end of the day, it will be back to where it was initially. Simple as that. It is not to curtail anyone’s voice, in any capacity. And put it on record for me this day: We have allowed even somebody that remains in this room who I have personally had to file orders. And when we’re sitting here, we have to constantly say, ‘Point of order.’ This world is very interesting right now. And at the end of the day, voices are important, but we have to do things decent and in order.”
“Decent and in order,” Davis replied. “I look at the First Amendment, and it’s ironic that Ambassador Young was here tonight, who fought for our civil rights, our voting rights, but yet, we have a Black board that wants to take the right of our citizens away, to speak publicly, and say, ‘Look, I want to put you at the end when nobody’s there.’ That’s the equivalent to Jim Crow and the court saying, ‘Black folks, you can’t, huh, you cannot testify in court because of the color of your skin.’ We have disrespected our citizens. I’m not a state elected official. I’m a Clayton County representative for the fourth district. And I’m here to support Clayton County and our citizens. If I don’t like what you say, so what? You have the right to say it. And let’s sit and talk about it. I’m not gonna run away from you. This resolution here says, not only do I want to run away from you, but I wanna put my thumb on you just like in Jim Crow days did. I wanna keep you under oppression in everything that we do. I say it’s amazing. Andrew Young is here this evening, and we simply vote against what he stood for.”
Hambrick said, “Uh, let me say this. I don’t know where all this is coming from, but for years, we had public comment at the end of the meeting, so what is going on? What are you talking about?”
Franklin said, “I would also like to add, Madame Vice Chair, [then addressing Davis] I find it interesting that you talk about Jim Crow and so forth, but we sat here, and I believe it was January 6, and we saw things being said and we saw things happen. We have a responsibility as a board to make sure that we do what we need to do to make sure we’re in order. If you want to bring color into it, there is an investigation right now, with the President, the past President of the United States, because people felt they could say what they wanted to say and it turned into an insurrection. Or at least an alleged one. So we’re not gonna move forward out of order. And I agree with you, Madame Vice Chair, this is the way it was and yes, I was one that voted for it back then. But, at the end of the day, when things aren’t working, we have to re-evaluate and evaluate again. And with that, I call the question.”
The ordinance passed, again, 3-2.
While many government bodies limit public comment to agenda items, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that citizens cannot be ejected from public meetings because they criticize members of the body. The court held that a Tennessee school board policy prohibiting speech that was critical, antagonistic, or even disparaging is unconstitutional because it bans speech based on the speaker’s opinion. However, the court pointed out the ruling does not cover personal attacks—just attacks on policies or ideas.
In recent weeks, some regular commenters have complained that Anderson has been unresponsive, silenced comment during her district town hall meetings, and kicked critics out of the online town hall meeting altogether.
During Tuesday’s public comment, several citizens reiterated these complaints and continued to ask why Bivins’ contract had not been renewed. The board took that action after The Clayton Crescent had published a story about one of the pseudonymous e-mail authors, “John David,” claiming that Bivins and other department heads would be targeted for removal. That e-mail had alleged that Anderson (then running for reelection), Hambrick, and Franklin would form a voting bloc on behalf of suspended Sheriff Victor Hill and convicted felon, political consultant, and former CCSO Chief of Staff Mitzi Bickers.
Immediately after the election, Anderson, Franklin, and Hambrick voted not to renew Bivins’ contract, then took additional votes ending the remainder of her current contract, forcing her out of the office within two days, and naming Dennis Johnson as interim CFO, effective immediately. None of the three commissioners would state any reasons during the public meeting for their actions against Bivins.
Late last week, Johnson retired as Interim CFO, prompting a special called meeting Tuesday, June 28 at 5:15 p.m. to find a replacement. (Note: the meeting was moved to 5 p.m. Tuesday, June 28 and added an executive session.)
The Clayton Crescent has filed several Open Records Requests for documents that might shed light on events leading up to Bivins’ dismissal. Most of those remain in process as of press time.
A third agenda item, 2022-134, noted several parts of the county code related to the powers of the chairman and chief operating officer. The broad explanation was that it took certain powers from the county chairman and gave them to the chief operating officer. Again, no PDF of the actual resolution as written was attached to the online agenda packet for the public to see. However, the changes have to do with purchasing, contract approvals, and the place where contractors make the big money: change orders and contract modifications. Existing code sections sections would be replaced—but the board did not show the citizens the changes it voted. 3-2, to pass. As of the end of business on Thursday, June 23, no sample resolution was on the BOC’s meeting page.
Thus, members of the public had no chance to review proposed changes to county law before the meeting and no way to make their wishes known directly through public comment, e-mails, calls, letters, or meetings with commissioners before the votes on those ordinances were taken.
“Point of order”
At Tuesday’s meeting, several community activists continued to press for answers during public comment about Bivins’ dismissal. Commissioners Franklin and Anderson repeatedly called for points of order as speakers accused them of alleged wrongdoing.
Watch the public comments from the June 21, 2022 BOC meeting:
Asking DA to “investigate this case”
Timothy Vondell Jefferson of unincorporated Clayton County said, “The termination of CFO Ramona Bivins not only was collusion, and a conspiracy, which equals the word corruption. We, the citizens of this community, after filing an ethics complaint with the Board of Ethics, we are going directly to Tasha Mosley, the DA of this county, to ask for a corruption investigation…. to attack people with your authority, it is out of order. The citizens of this community is demanding a public corruption investigation regarding the termination of CFO Ramona Bivins….We have a tax-paying attorney. I don’t believe any of the commissioners conferred with the attorney before they made this decision to put the county tax dollars in jeopardy.”
He continued, “So this was a corrupt collusion and a conspiracy to terminate someone who gave us nine years of service as a community servant. Now we are trying to clean it up with a resolution, 2022-132, for justification of the termination. So we, the citizens, are asking Tasha Mosley, our district attorney, to have the special agent in charge of public corruption to investigate this case and beyond.”
“Why didn’t you answer?”
Gwendolyn Gooden of unincorporated Clayton County said, “Commissioner Hambrick, you are the only one on this board with over a decade of service and claim you want to be a good steward of the constituents’ money. Then why are you not leading, instead of following, the misdeeds of the other women commissioners on this board? Shame on you. Commissioner Franklin, why didn’t you answer the chairman and Commissioner Davis’ question on why CFO Ramona Bivins was being terminated, when at every meeting we have to endure your needless and unwanted monologues? Well, as you like to say, we should take a deep dive. I assure you, we will be taking a deep dive on your car accident and on your voting patterns. Case in point: on a previous board meeting, you told Commissioner Anderson, and I quote, ‘Just vote no,’ regarding the grants system they were looking to improve getting other grants for this county. Commissioner Anderson, your rude, disrespectful, disparaging, mean-spirited—”
“Point of order,” Franklin interjected.
“Point of order, ma’am, point of order,” Anderson said. “You are out of order.”
“Hold on a second, hold on,” Turner said. “Please refrain from direct attacks, please.”
“Bivins is both highly respected and loved”
“—you read regarding CFO Ramona Bivins was unnecessary,” Gooden continued. “Unlike you, Mrs. Bivins’ ethics and job performance was above reproach. Also, Mrs. Bivins is both highly respected and loved by myself and by fellow constituents. Lastly, this board unanimously approved CFO Bivins’ contract in 2019. What changed? We are still waiting for the answers on this matter.”
“Script filled with disinformation”
Orlando Gooden told the board, “Commissioner Anderson, the way you handled CFO Ramona Bivins’ contract was embarrassing and disrespectful. Then you removed people from the June 11 Zoom meeting because they asked why. That is censorship. The CFO’s 2019 contract was a unanimous vote by the Board of Commissioners. The CFO’s performance is A-minus. So ‘ultra vires’ was an excuse, not a reason. But Board of Education Chair Anderson did no better than a D. You supported [CCPS Superintendent Morcease] Beasley getting a $380,000 salary, a $1500 a month housing stipend, unlimited gas allowance, and an administration filled with cronyism. Commissioner Hambrick even told Beasley, ‘Thank you for doing your job and earning your money.’ That for a grade D. And ranking 174th on the Georgia schools district list. FYI, Commissioner Anderson, if there’s a motion pending, you can’t rush to submit another motion. That is a violation of Robert’s Rules of Order. Chairman Turner told you, ‘That’s not how we do it here,’ but you couldn’t wait to read the prewritten script filled with disinformation. Commissioner Hambrick, your vote with [Michael] Edmondson and [Sonna Singleton] Gregory was based on power and greed. It is intimidation. Now it is intimidation and collusion. You told me, quote, ‘I got my head beaten off because I asked why the sheriffs [were] called first responders.’ Then you told me, ‘Don’t say it too loud.’ Commissioners said they want to be good stewards of county money and fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities. That’s called hypocrisy. Because that’s exactly what CFO Ramona Bivins was doing.”
Gooden then held up some papers.
“I know you guys have seen ‘John David’s’ e-mails and the articles in Clayton Crescent. So now the image of three commissioners is pathetic.”
“Point of order,” Franklin said.
“Thank you,” added Anderson.
“I spoke abut this before,” Gooden continued. “It is really disturbing to hear somebody say you should show respect to the members in this place, to the members on this board, and you two never look at people when they’re talking.”
“She was not derelict of duties”
Mickey Garber of unincorporated Rex said, “Today, my topic of conversation is litter, garbage, trash, and leadership. However, it is not about the litter and garbage on our highways and byways. It is now about the garbage and trash that has now entered the corridors, hallways, and doors of 112 Smith Street. More specifically, it is about how disrespectful former CFO Ramona Bivins was so unceremoniously relieved of her CFO position as CFO of Clayton County. It would be one thing if she was derelict in any aspect of her duties. But she was not derelict of duties, Matter of fact, her performance for her tenure of ten years was one of excellent and timely delivery of yearly budgetary requests by any member of the Board of Commissioners and citizens. Let me say this: Hard work, honest, dedicated, and dependable help is hard to find.”
Garber continued, “Speaking to the injustice done toward Ms. Bivins, I hold guilty Commissioner Warner as the architect. I hold guilty Commissioner Anderson as the facilitator. I hold Commissioner Hambrick guilty as the accomplice. What this action toward Ms. Bivins has done, it has fractured morale. How? What happened to Ms. Bivins means it can happen to any other county employee. COO Detrick Stanford, you may be next. Police Chief Roberts, Fire Chief Merkison, Dr. Smith, performance management, Clayton County—what’s that guy’s name?—Jeff Metarko, you all could be next. It has also destroyed esprit de corps. Esprit de corps: pride in the family unit. In closing, let me say injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. I plagiarized that one. Our lives are balanced between good and evil. And you, Commissioner Hambrick, tipped the scale.”
“Point of order, point of order,” Anderson and Warner said.
“Thank you, sir, your time is up,” Turner added.
“Not as the government commands”
Carol Yancey of Rex told the board, “Ms. Anderson, what are the reasons for firing Ms. Ramona Bivins, a Clayton County resident for 21 years? The motions and actions were disrespectful, hostile, and an attempt to publicly humiliate her, which is indicative of you all’s mindset and attitude towards Clayton County residents and staff. Pushing dictatorship equals revolution. Our First Amendment rights were also violated when IT staff received instructions from you to remove me and others from your June 11 virtual town hall public meeting for our chat inquiries regarding Ms. Bivins. U.S. Supreme [Court] Justice [Hugo] Black: ‘The very reason for the First Amendment is to make the people of this country free to think, speak, write, and worship as they wish, not as the government commands.’ June 7th motions against Ms. Bivins in itself consider “ultra vires.” Since descriptive motion and creator, not authorized to serve as the legal advisor for the commissioners. The Open Records Act violations, the sunshine laws, the quorum that was done.”
Yancey took Anderson to task for having mispronounced the legal term “ultra vires” as “ultra virus” when Anderson read the motions to get rid of Bivins, reading dictionary definition of “virus.”
“‘Ultra virus’ is a perfect analogy regarding the negative impact of several commissioners’ behavior, actions, and decisions,” Yancey said. “Ms. Hambrick, you continue to wear a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which is a moot issue, being that you’ve been infected by two other commissioners who function in an ‘ultra virus’ manner.”
“Point of order.”
“Symptomatic of your June 7 vote firing Ms. Bivins,” Yancey continued. “If it’s not ‘ultra virus,” then what? Coercion? Reprisal? Or just plain incompetency?”
“You need to put on your tough skin”
Drew Andrews, of unincorporated Clayton County, also addressed the meeting.
“I was just going through this agenda and something that jumped out at me immediately is the public comments,” Andrews said. “As a soldier, warrior, who has served my country for 21 years and has seen, you know, friends die, when it comes to my First Amendment right to speak, it’s an affront. Any modification, that’s a problem. Because we work for the people. The people kind of lead us, advise us. So please, do not modify public comments. Allow us to continue to speak. I know sometimes it hurts, because we’re human, and some of the words, they sting. But as elected officials, you have been anointed with armor, so you need to put on your tough skin, and continue to allow people to speak and express themselves.”