Forsyth, Monroe County officials working to rebuild public trust

awomack@macon.comApril 6, 2014 

In the past two years, Forsyth and Monroe County have seen two elected officials sentenced to federal prison and two department heads indicted on theft charges.

Now, Monroe County sheriff’s investigators are reviewing records from the county tax commissioner’s office, looking for possible criminal activity, and city utility records for any irregularities in billing.

At a time when many people don’t trust government in general, arrests and suspicions of impropriety can add to residents’ concerns.

“People want to have faith in who they elect,” said Amy Henderson, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association. “At the end of the day, the voters have the ultimate control.”

Voters not only choose their leaders, she said, but they can also take measures to remove an official from office and pressure officials if they have concerns about someone who’s appointed.

Forsyth City Councilman Eric Wilson said council members are working to rebuild the public’s trust following the federal convictions last year of two of the council’s former members, Desi Hansford and James Edward Calloway. The men admitted that they took bribes from a company that was seeking a city contract.

“As public officials, we have to govern ourselves with a higher standard of ethics,” Wilson said. “The public expects us to do the right thing. They elect us.

“They give us a big trust when they elect us, and when we fail to keep that trust it damages our perception as a governing body.”

Council members are taking steps to tighten city policies to try to make it harder for officials to “do the wrong thing,” Wilson said.

“We’re taking a careful look at how we do things,” he said.

County changes, too

Monroe County Commission Chairman Michael Bilderback said he plans to present a proposal to his fellow commissioners next month to “overhaul” the county’s money-handling policies. The proposal follows a county audit and recent investigations into financial irregularities.

Specifically, the proposal would require more people to be involved in financial transactions, he said.

Monroe County deputies started an investigation in late March after a request to review records in the county tax commissioner’s office. They are looking to see if any money has been misappropriated or if there are any other irregularities, said Allison Selman-Willis, a sheriff’s office spokeswoman.

No one has been charged with a crime, she said.

A part-time fraud investigator is reviewing the tax records while working on other cases, including the city utility billing investigation. That probe seeks to determine the circumstances of Mayor John Howard II’s not paying his city utility bills for six months, Selman-Willis said, while still receiving service.

The utility billing investigation includes reviewing more than 1,000 pages of documents and conducting interviews.

There’s no time line for when either investigation will be complete. The investigators’ findings in both cases will be submitted to the district attorney. The district attorney, in turn, will determine if criminal charges are warranted.

Bilderback said a certain level of trust must be given to department heads, and there wasn’t a way to predict that former county Finance Officer Kimberly Romine would use a county credit card to pay thousands of dollars of her personal expenses in July 2012.

Romine pleaded guilty to one count of theft by taking on Sept. 11, 2012, and was sentenced to pay restitution. Once the restitution was paid two days later, the probation portion of her sentence was canceled, according to Monroe County Superior Court records.

In the case of former Recreation Director James Allison Smith Sr.’s alleged theft of tools, equipment and other items purchased for county use, Bilderback said the county’s procurement policies weren’t followed.

Smith was indicted in 2012 on 12 counts of theft by taking, one count of burglary and one count of interference with government property. He is charged with converting items he bought for the department to his own use between April 2007 and July 2012, according to court records.

The items ranged from boxes of screws and wasp spray to power tools and lawn mowers, according to Smith’s indictment.

Bilderback admits the county’s image has suffered as a result of the incidents.

“Public trust is number one,” he said.

He said it’s irresponsible for elected officials not to make changes after a series of such episodes.

“You learn from your mistakes. You learn from a lack of policies,” he said. “It’s negligence if you don’t.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.

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