Lawyer: Discussion about removing probation officer should have been open

The Augusta Commission misfired in allowing a judge to explain why he wanted to remove a staff member behind closed doors, the attorney for Georgia Press Association and The Augusta Chronicle said.

 

Whatever the rationale for removing Chief Probation Officer Marie Boulton was, it now costs taxpayers upwards of $79,500 annually, as commissioners opted to create a new position for her at Richmond County Correctional Institute, where as deputy warden she’ll help supervise state prisoners on county work details.

The commission voted Tuesday to close the meeting to discuss personnel and pending or potential litigation, two exceptions to open meeting laws under certain circumstances, then invited Chief State Court Judge David Watkins and Chief Civil and Magistrate Judge William Jennings in to discuss the probation officer.

But at that point, neither exception to Georgia open meetings laws applies, attorney David Hudson said.

The “personnel” exception is limited to an agency’s discussion and deliberation of personnel matters, not the presentation of facts and information to the agency - the commission - by another party, Hudson said.

“When they admitted Judge Watkins, the commission was engaged in fact-finding and the receipt of information. That should have been in a public meeting,” he said.

The next exception - pending or potential litigation - is one Augusta General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie used to defend the closed session, and Boulton had in fact hired attorney Jack Long, who threatened litigation for the needless termination of Boulton.

“The discussion clearly fell within the litigation exception,” MacKenzie said.

But with Watkins and Jennings present, that exception does not apply either, Hudson said.

The threatened litigation exception is to allow lawyers to have private attorney-client communications about lawsuits - and it goes away when someone who is not a client is present, he said.

“The presence of Judge Watkins, who was neither the client nor the lawyer, destroyed the privilege and the basis for the closed meeting exception,” Hudson said.

Watkins has declined to comment, saying as a judge he can’t defend his actions publicly. Boulton was handpicked a year ago by former Chief State Court Judge Richard Slaby, whose retirement July 31 made the long-serving Watkins then chief judge. The city’s probation order says the chief probation officer serves at the pleasure of the chief judge, meaning he can fire her, and Watkins earlier called Boulton in and asked her to resign, according to Long.

MacKenzie said the private discussion led to the commission’s settlement job offer to Boulton but did not comment on the judges’ presence voiding the attorney-client privilege.

Reach Susan McCord at (706) 823-2315 or susan.mccord@augustachronicle.com.

 

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