Lee commissioners criticized for retreat costs

LEESBURG -- Sparks flew at the conclusion of the Lee County Commission meeting Tuesday night when businessman Ralph Jackson criticized commissioners for spending money to attend a retreat at Callaway Gardens in January.

Speaking during a public forum held at the end of each Commission meeting, Jackson's comments drew the ire of Commission Chairman Ed Duffy.

"You're an angry man," Duffy told Jackson as the exchange became heated. "You made an Open Records request to find out how much money was spent at the retreat and went right to the (Leesburg) newspaper and put it in their (public forum section)."

Duffy said after the meeting Jackson had been undermining his credibility since the two became embroiled in a disagreement over the county's Utilities Authority.

"I told him not to come and tell this Board we should fire everyone on the Utilities Authority again," Duffy said. "I've listened to him try and undermine my credibility for a while now, and I've never said a word. But I was fed up with it tonight. I don't regret anything I said."

Jackson told Duffy "the people will decide (this issue) at the polls," referring to Duffy's re-election bid later this year for the Palmyra District seat he's held for the last three-plus years.

Attempts to reach Jackson, who said the $5,613 commissioners spent at the retreat could have been saved by holding meetings in Leesburg, after the meeting were unsuccessful.

The fireworks came at the conclusion of a commission business session at which the board decided to not make suggested changes to policy that allows Lee firefighters and EMTs to pick up meals during their 24-hour shifts and bring them back to the station house for consumption.

"I have no problem with continuing the policy if they're all going to do what the policy says," Commissioner Dennis Roland said. "But I look at a lot of people in the county living on dirt roads and paying high insurance rates, and I don't think (using county emergency vehicles to pick up meals) is what their tax money should pay for.

"Don't think if I see you stopped at an ATM machine that I'm not going to call and tell someone."

After a long discussion, commissioners also voted to serve as a funding conduit for a misdemeanor probation program being developed through the Southwest Judicial Circuit. Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge R. Rucker Smith petitioned for a memorandum of understanding that would make the Lee Commission the agent for funding the reimbursable federal Byrne JAG Grant funds.

"All we're asking is that you be the conduit for the funding to go through," Smith said. "Federal money is hard to get, but it's going to go somewhere. I'd rather it be spent here in the Southwest Judicial Circuit than in Minnesota or somewhere else."

The commission approved funding for firefighting equipment sought by Chief James Howell, tentatively OK'd the closure of a Whitney Road extension -- pending a required public hearing -- and signed off on a logo being developed for the county.

Commissioners tabled a request for funding to finance a flood plain mapping project that would impact about 88 homes in the county that were moved into the flood plain when new EPA maps were redrawn late last year. Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander said 60 of the affected homes are in the Leesburg city limits, 20 are in unincorporated areas of the county and eight are in the Smithville city limits.

"We were able to come up with $27,559 from a debt services fund, and we have $10,000 in our contingency fund," Commissioner Bill Williams said. "We could put that amount -- $37,559 -- into the program."

"That is, if Smithville and Leesburg are willing to take part," Commissioner Betty Johnson interjected.

Alexander, who noted that low projected bid for the project is $74,000, said he had asked to get on the agendas of the Leesburg and Smithville councils' next meetings to discuss their participation.

The Board also tabled requests to approve an agreement with AT&T for faster Internet service and to OK a bid for janitorial services until further information is requested of the bidders.

Roland asked County Administrator Alan Ours to "negotiate with (Albany's) Water, Gas & Light Commission" on installation of high-speed Internet lines.

"We graciously gave them permission to run their lines through Lee County, and now they're taking them on into Americus," Roland said. "I think they should provide this service to us for no charge."

Commissioners voted to deny a request for funding of a Rails to Trails project that runs through part of the county.

Before the business portion of the meeting got under way, Duffy announced that orthopedist Dr. Phillip Hajek was continuing efforts through his Fifth Friday Foundation to complete the county's animal shelter.

"Dr. Hajek has assured us that (project builders) will be driving nails within 10 days and we'll have a completed animal shelter within 60 to 90 days," Duffy said.