Marilynn Mims’ granddaughters Kendal, 8, left, and Rileigh James, 5, loved to ride on Mims’ quarterhorse “Tarbaby.” The horse was attacked by a dog and had to be put down, sparking a controversy in Worth County that has county commissioners choosing sides.
SYLVESTER -- It's hard to keep track of all her concerns as Marilynn Mims runs down an extensive laundry list of complaints she's leveled against the five-person Worth County Commission and other county officials.
The county's former Animal Control officer intimates there is collusion among board members, that she was let go by the county because she ruffled the feathers of citizens who had the ear of certain commissioners, and she suggests a contractor in the county may have been given a construction job by his brother, who happens to manage the county's Public Works department.
But at the root of all these complaints and accusations is a deep hurt that Mims feels every day as she looks at photos of her beloved quarterhorse "Tarbaby."
Mims said she knew something was wrong on Oct. 9 when she went outside and whistled for Tarbaby.
"All I had to do was whistle," she said, "and he'd come running."
The horse didn't respond on this Sunday afternoon, so Mims went to investigate. What she found still haunts her.
"I went down to where Tarbaby was, and he had blood all over his face and body," she said. "He was having difficulty walking. I heard something and looked over to where a dog was standing. He was covered in blood. I called the vet, and a while later I called Animal Control. I knew the protocol: If there is damage enough to seek medical attention, Animal Control is supposed to be there."
The vet came and tended to Tarbaby as best he could, although his efforts would be to no avail. The next day, Mims had the horse she'd owned for 15 years put down.
But the call to Animal Control went unheeded, according to Mims.
"They never showed up," she said. "I called 911 and asked if they were sending Animal Control, but I was told that since I didn't have the dog that had attacked my horse, no one was coming."
The saga took on deeper meaning for Mims two weeks later when she says Animal Control officials showed up at her southeast Worth County home accompanied by a deputy from the Worth Sheriff's office.
"I asked the deputy what he was doing there, and he said he was told to come," Mims said. "I asked if 911 or Environmental Health or Animal Control told him he was needed, and he said no. I asked him who told him to come, and he said it was a county commissioner. I asked him which one, and he said Bettye Bozeman.
"Now, we've got a county that's supposedly broke, but one of our commissioners is sending a deputy out here on overtime, I guess because I was some kind of threat."
Mims, who had been Worth's only Animal Control officer after county voters approved funding for the position through a special sales tax referendum, had had a rocky tenure as a county employee. She started work with Animal Control in 2006 but says she was "furloughed" when budgeted funds for her department were depleted in June of this year.
A seperation notice signed by Worth County Clerk Felicia Smith on June 9 says Mims had been laid off, citing: "Funds depleated (sic) until next budget year starting in July."
"I was fine with that decision. They said I'd be called back once the next fiscal year budget kicked in," Mims said.
But Mims was never called back. In fact, she said that she learned her job was "vacant" when she saw it advertised in the county newspaper, The Sylvester Local News.
"I was told that I had to re-apply for the job and that I'd be granted an interview," Mims said. "I thought that was a formality, so I set up an interview. I went in, and they talked with me for eight minutes. I found out a short while later they'd given the job to someone else (Sherri Hendley).
"There were requirements -- like being licensed to euthanize animals -- that I had that no one else who applied did. But I was told later that the way they did this is the way the county attorney said they should get rid of employees they don't want around."
Two Worth commissioners -- District 4's Billy McDonald and District 2's Mack Sutton -- said they were as surprised as Mims when they heard she'd been terminated.
"I hadn't heard a word that they were hiring someone else in that position until I saw the advertisement in the newspaper," McDonald, who has served on the Worth Commission for 16 years, eight as chairman, said. "I was shocked at the way they'd done this. That's just not the way a county's supposed to operate.
"And even if they were going to go through this process of interviewing people for the job, there was no one who interviewed who came close to being as qualified as Ms. Mims."
Sutton echoes his colleague's concerns.
"What happened to Marilynn is just unbelievable," he said. "She wasn't treated right. I can't help but believe some people on this board retaliated against Ms. Mims because she did the right thing. She wasn't treated right because she stood up to people."
Mims says she's certain she was muscled out of her taxpayer-funded position because she picked up animals of citizens who were friends of Bozeman and Commission Chairman Matt Medders. Both deny the accusations.
"What she's saying is absolutely not true," Bozeman, who represents District 3 in the county, said. "If you want to know the truth of the matter, (Mims) treated people like dirt. She didn't get along with anybody, and when she overshot her budget Matt had to move her.
"She was never promised her job back, and after we advertised the job and conducted interviews we hired the person who we thought would do the best job. I can tell you this: When (Mims) was in charge of Animal Control, about 98 percent of the complaint calls we got were about her. And we haven't had any complaints since we hired (Hendley)."
Medders, too, dismisses Mims' complaints.
"All advertisements and decisions regarding the position of Animal Control officer were followed according to requirements of the law," Medders wrote in an email response to a request for comment on the accusations made by Mims, McDonald and Sutton. "This accusation is nothing more than that of a former disgruntled employee, and all records pertaining to such are well-documented."
Mims indicated that the county's decision to hire Hendley and turn Animal Control services over to the local Best Friends Humane Society may have been a conflict of interest since Medders was previously on the board of that organization.
"In the effort to provide quality Animal Control services at the greatest benefit financially to our local taxpayers, the Worth County Board of Commissioners and the city of Sylvester contracted with Best Friends Humane Society to provide such services for both the city and the county," Medders wrote. "They have done an outstanding job; their leadership and professionalism have just been phenomenal. Not to mention the complaints with Animal Control have decreased significantly.
"This joint venture has been a huge success for the county as well as the city of Sylvester."
Bozeman said Mims is wrong in accusing Public Works Director John Merritt of misconduct because Merritt's brother James's construction company was hired to work on the damaged drainfield at the county-owned animal shelter.
"If you go back to 2007 when that facility was being built, the county only built the shell of that building and did the cement work," Bozeman said. "When there was no money available to finish the project, the Humane Society came in and finished the project. They paid for the well and the septic system; there was no taxpayer money used.
"The cement work and the shell of the building were financed through SPLOST IV funds, but the other work was paid for by the Humane Society. They were free to hire who they wanted."
Bozeman then addressed accusations by McDonald and Sutton that she, Medders and District 1 Commissioner Tony Hall were meeting outside the guidelines set by state law to predetermine issues on the agenda.
"That's not true at all," she said. "Everything that has been done by this board has been above-board and open. I will tell you that if I personally go into a room and see two other commissioners there, I turn around and walk the other way.
"I find it strange that Mr. McDonald would make such an accusation since he is about to be investigated for the same thing."
But McDonald and Sutton remain firm in their support of Mims.
"To me, what happened to Marilynn was retaliation," Sutton said. "It's a sad state that when someone found out it was her that called 911 when her horse was attacked, that Animal Control was told not to respond. It shouldn't matter who called 911, that service is for all the citizens of this county. Now we have people comparing the board to a circus.
"What went on here is just not right. Marilynn didn't just lose a horse, she lost part of her family. All she's got now is pictures, trophies and memories of that special animal. Some of the people (with Animal Control) are asking what happened to her horse. We know what happened; we weren't born yesterday."
McDonald, meanwhile, said he's concerned at the direction the county government is taking.
"I've been a part of this board for a number of years, and I've never seen things so unorganized," the commissioner, who is a farmer, said. "I just don't know what's going on any more.
"This situation with Ms. Mims, it seems to me that the only thing she did wrong is pick up somebody's dog that had strong connections (with county officials). Now we've got a $90,000 facility that we're hardly using, and we're spending taxpayer money that's totally unnecessary. I just don't know what's going on here."
For her part, Mims said she holds no ill feelings toward Hendley and the Animal Control department. But she does offer an ominous parting thought.
"That dog killed my horse, and nothing was done about it," she said. "And they can use whatever excuse they want to, but it's still out there. My question now is what are they going to do when that dog attacks a child?"