ATLANTA -- The first meeting Thursday of a newly sworn-in state board overseeing distribution of tobacco-settlement money to farmers was dominated by controversy over what to pay its part-time executive director.
Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin spearheaded an unsuccessful bid against Gov. Roy Barnes' recommendation to pay $80,000 to Marcus Collins, a former state revenue commissioner who was asked to resign over problems accounting for sales tax collections.
The vote was the second one taken by the nine-member Tobacco Community Development Board. The first was on a motion by Mr. Barnes, who has championed the cause of open government both in public office and as a private attorney, to meet behind closed doors to discuss Mr. Collins' appointment.
Mr. Barnes, meeting chairman, said the session should be closed because it was to take up a personnel issue, a category of subject matter exempt from the state's open-meetings law.
The governor appointed the board last week to oversee the distribution of $22 million this year.
Major tobacco companies will pay roughly the same amount each of the next 11 years as part of a lawsuit settlement with 42 states. The funds are meant for 6,500 Georgia farmers and 3,150 allotment holders who might suffer from reduced demand for their crop if anti-smoking campaigns mandated by the settlement succeed. Other funds coming from the settlement won't be restricted to farmers or controlled by the board.
When the board reconvened in open session, Mr. Irvin made a motion that Mr. Collins' pay be reduced to $50,000 rather than the $80,000 Mr. Barnes had recommended. Joining Mr. Irvin were Attorney General Thurbert Baker, who also sits on the board, and board members Wayne Dollar of Ochlocknee and Pearlie Toliver of Macon.
Board members Lamar DeLoach of Statesboro, Elizabeth Moore of Alapaha, Ramsey Pidcock of Moultrie and Donnie Smith of Willacoochee voted the other way. The motion failed when Mr. Barnes, as chairman, refused to break the tie.
Then, the board voted 5-3 to hire Mr. Collins at the full $80,000.
"Hopefully, it won't be this way on all future votes," Mr. Collins said.
Mr. Irvin, Mr. Baker and Mr. Dollar each said after the meeting they had no qualms about Mr. Collins, only the amount of pay for a part-time job.
"It's hard to vote against the governor. He's a strong agriculture supporter," said Mr. Dollar, who is also president of the Georgia Farm Bureau. "This is no reflection on the qualifications of the man appointed to be director. He's a good man, and he knows farming."
Before serving as revenue commissioner, Mr. Collins had a lengthy career in the General Assembly. Most recently, he has served as an assistant to House Speaker Tom Murphy.
Mr. Collins said the board will have to decide in future meetings who gets how much money, and if farmers who quit producing in the next 11 years would still be entitled to the compensation.
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