Secrecy only makes things worse

Columbia County only ramped up tension keeping report under wraps

Imagine a jury foreman saying, “Your honor, we have reached a verdict. We’ll let you know what it is in a couple weeks.”

 

That’s essentially what Columbia County has done.

Last week, commissioners received the sheriff’s report they’d asked for on a complaint by former Emergency Management Agency Director Pam Tucker alleging a hostile work environment had been created by county Administrator Scott Johnson. There’s also a companion report on Tucker. But the county won’t officially release its findings until today, after observing an arbitrary 10-day waiting period.

There isn’t even a waiting period to buy a gun these days. Why wait 10 days to release a highly anticipated report that has such a bearing on the public perception of the local government? We asked that question of several officials last week.

Commission Chairman Ron Cross initially argued that the 10-day delay was required by law.

“The delay is part of the law,” Chairman Cross wrote us. “Please talk to the sheriff or the county attorney. The commission is not delaying.”

Well, not so fast. We did contact the county attorney, Chris Driver. He said there is no such prohibition in the law, and that the county had the power and discretion to release the report immediately.

Then Mr. Cross argued that the sheriff wanted it withheld from the public for 10 days as a matter of department protocol. We confirmed that with a department spokesman, who said Sheriff Clay Whittle was sticking with the waiting period. Cross said he’s sticking with the sheriff.

We respect that sign of respect toward the sheriff. But it’s made for some silliness over the past week, as snippets of the report predictably leaked out. One media outlet was said to be convinced another had received a surreptitious copy of the report, and insisted to the sheriff the 10-day waiting period had been breached.

The sheriff is said to have called a radio talk show host to make sure he didn’t have a copy.

This page was offered a copy by one source, who later reneged out of fear of both the sheriff and jail time – though it’s our firm belief that release of the report would not have been any sort of crime.

Meanwhile, the public, which has been wondering about this report for months, was kept in the dark another week for no legal reason. Unfortunately, Georgia law allows it.

When asked by Chairman Cross what the benefit would have been in releasing the report without delay, we responded:

• A showing of openness and transparency

• A tamping down of suspicions that a delay raises

• Moving ahead and leaving this behind sooner

• A statement that this is the people’s government, and it’s responsive to our concerns

• An affirmation that it’s important to get confidence back in Columbia County government

• It’s fairer to all parties – Scott Johnson and Pam Tucker alike, but all employees and citizens – to get this resolved without delay

• So we can move on to other topics more uplifting

Instead, the county’s attempt at secrecy only served to further pit people against one another and escalate bad feelings surrounding the local government. How can that possibly engender confidence in our public officials?

We appreciate the chairman’s loyalty to the sheriff. We understand the sheriff’s adherence to protocol in most cases. But this is not your garden-variety investigation. This is a probe into the functionality and livability of the county government’s work environment. We pay the freight. Our family, friends and neighbors work for the county. We deserved the right to see behind the curtain, without delay. We’ve earned it, with our tax dollars and citizenship.

No one deserved it more than Scott Johnson and Pam Tucker – neither of whom wanted this report suppressed.

This is what a lack of transparency gets you – murkiness, anxiety and confusion.

It was all so unnecessary.

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