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Report: McIntosh Clerk of Court committed misconduct in office
 tdickson  / 

A three-member committee that investigated McIntosh County Clerk of Court Rebecca McFerrin concluded she had committed misconduct in office and may have committed crimes including deleting from the court database a speeding citation against her husband.

The committee said, however, it was up to District Attorney Tom Durden to decide if McFerrin’s actions were criminal and whether to petition Superior Court to remove her from office.

Following the committee’s recommendation in its 20-page report, Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday suspended McFerrin for 60 days and instructed Durden to decide whether to bring a petition for McFerrin’s removal.

Late last year, Chief Superior Court Judge Robert L. Russell and State Court Judge C. Jean Bolin had asked Gov. Nathan Deal for an investigation of McFerrin’s actions.

The two judges detailed failures to enter the cases of jailed criminal defendants into the court database, but did not mention allegations that McFerrin had interfered in court proceedings on a speeding charge against her husband. The committee, composed of Attorney General Chris Carr and two county clerks of court, dug deep into the latter allegations and made the findings the first complaint against the clerk.

The report, obtained through a Georgia Open Records request, says that on Jan. 9, 2017, a Georgia state trooper stopped McFerrin’s husband, James Glenn McFerrin, and issued a citation accusing him of speeding at 101 mph and driving too fast for conditions.

The State Court solicitor told the committee that James Glenn McFerrin had received two citations prior to that ticket. One had been reduced to a warning and the solicitor agreed to reduce the speed on the second citation so that no points would be assessed against James McFerrin’s driver’s license. He was required, however, to pay the full fine.

Because of the two earlier reductions in penalties for speeding, the solicitor told the investigative committee that McFerrin would not have received any reduction for the January 2017 violation.

James Glenn McFerrin had been on the March and April 2017 trial calendars, but both cases were continued. The committee said it was unclear who had continued the trials.

State Court Judge C. Jean Bolin said James Glenn McFerrin’s case was placed on the May 2017 trial calendar. But on the day of court, May 24, 2017, the case was no longer on the calendar. When Bolin inquired why, members of McFerrin’s staff told her the case had been deleted from the clerk of court’s database.

Bolin went to the clerk of court’s office where the staff showed her that “Mr. McFerrin’s case … had been completely deleted with no record that it had ever existed,” the report says.

On May 23, 2017, Bolin visited Rebecca McFerrin, who acknowledged she had deleted the case from the court files.

“According to Judge Bolin and the solicitor, McFerrin asserted that she had been elected by the same people that had elected the judge and the solicitor and that it was within her rights to do what she did,’’ the committee report says.

She followed Bolin’s direction, however, to put the case back into the database, and James Glenn McFerrin agreed to pay the full fine within three days. Rebecca McFerrin re-entered the case May 27, and the fine was paid May 30.

The committee said that McFerrin admitted she had deleted her husband’s case but gave no explanation why. She denied to the committee that she had told Bolin and the State Court solicitor she had acted within her rights.

In its report to the governor, the committee concluded that in deleting her husband’s case, McFerrin had engaged in a variety of forms of misconduct including failing to maintain and preserve the court’s records.

It said she failed to abide by her oath of office and that, through the deletion, she effectively dismissed her husband’s case. Only prosecutors and judges have the authority to dismiss cases, “but never a clerk of court,’’ the committee found.

In deleting the case, the report said McFerrin may have committed crimes including violating her oath of office and others related to computers, computer databases and public records.

In their letter asking the governor to investigate McFerrin, Bolin and Russell noted that eight defendants did not receive timely hearings because their cases had not been entered into the court’s database and that another’s case had been intentionally delayed.

The committee reported at length on the case of Shannon Daras, a case it concluded was an intentional delay. The Sheriff’s Office stopped Daras on July 30, 2018, for speeding and then arrested her on a felony drug charge.

The public defender represented her and recognized immediately that Daras was in extreme pain and poor health after hip surgery. The public defender sought to get her released on bond, but couldn’t because her case hadn’t been entered into the database, the report says.

Daras’ family contacted McFerrin in an attempt to get the case moving to no avail, the committee said.

Records show that the clerk’s office received Daras’ records from the sheriff on Aug. 17, but the case was not entered into the database until Sept. 5.

When Bolin inquired before Sept. 5 about the delay, Sonja Gardner, who was chief deputy over criminal cases, told the judge that Daras’ family had called the clerk’s office repeatedly, which angered McFerrin.

“So she told me to sit on this file until she tells me otherwise,’’ Gardner said, according to Bolin’s statement to the committee.

The committee said a clerk of court staff member overheard McFerrin’s instructions to Gardner.

But Gardner was ill herself with cancer and was hospitalized Sept. 6 and died Sept. 10.

One of her final acts was to put Shannon Daras’ case in the database on Sept. 5 without telling McFerrin, the committee said.

McFerrin had told Bolin earlier she didn’t have long to live and “that she did not want to die and have people think that she was not doing her job.”

Although Gardner did her job Sept. 5, it did not affect Daras’ confinement because she was already out of jail. The Sheriff’s Office had approached Bolin and asked that Daras be released on her own recognizance so she could get medical treatment. Unknown to McFerrin, she was released Aug. 20.

Russell called Daras’ case the straw that broke the camel’s back. It prompted him and Bolin to write Gov. Deal.

The committee called it “unconscionable” that Daras’ case sat in a desk drawer at McFerrin’s direction at a time she desperately needed medical care.

In addition to those meticulously detailed findings, the committee said it turned up other cases of incompetence including:

The court has experienced problems with juries and grand juries including incorrect dates on juror summonses, too few in pools to seat a jury, failure to inform potential jurors when court is cancelled and not assisting in maintaining orderly seating and numbering in the selection process.

Orders and motions in cases have disappeared or been placed in the wrong case files. Defendants remained in jail considerable periods of time because bond orders have disappeared and records of some court proceedings don’t exist. The public defender began photographing bond orders in open court in McFerrin’s presence to preserve them.

Court calendars “are regularly a mess,’’ with defendants and cases often missing. In one recent incident, a calendar prepared by the district attorney and approved by a judge was replaced by one that McFerrin created on her own. The clerk also fails to inform the Sheriff’s Office which defendants are due in court, which results in delays.

Judges are supposed to sign court notices, but McFerrin removed the judges’ signature lines and substituted her own. Her explanation to Bolin was she was entitled to do so because she was elected by the same people who elected Bolin.

McFerrin has no knowledge of the child support filing system and does not seem willing to learn how it works.

McFerrin is absent from her office for hours each day partly because she takes 10 to 15 smoke breaks.

That allegation led the committee to conclude McFerrin “embraces the title, not the job” and that work is more of an inconvenience than a vocation.

McFerrin has also frequently canceled State Court without any notice to Judge Bolin.

The committee concluded that the accumulated allegations tantamount to misconduct and that the 30 days allocated by the governor were not enough to fully investigate them.

Although she has been clerk of court three years and worked in the office for years prior to that, she left the committee with the impression she has not tried to learn about the workings of the office.

In his order Monday, Kemp did not give Durden a deadline on deciding whether to petition for McFerrin’s removal.

Attempts by The News to reach McFerrin this week have been unsuccessful.

Rules committees heat up heading toward sine die
 wwolfe  / 

The 2019 session of the General Assembly concludes April 2, one way or another, and with deadline pressure hitting the Capitol, legislators are seeking ways to get active legislation across the finish line in time.

In that vein, Tuesday’s House Rules Committee meeting went against the grain, as committee Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla, remarked at the beginning of it that there were a noticeable few present. Regardless, he said to get ready for what’s to come.

“There may be a few bills that are still coming out of committee, and I think there are other bills that may be being viewed as vehicles that may come out of committee, and so I would anticipate — there are 13 or 14 bills on the calendar for today, and we just put six on the calendar for Thursday, so one of the days there will probably be a supplemental calendar, but we’re getting down to the short rows on this now,” Powell said.

Among those six scheduled for a vote on the House floor Thursday are Senate Bill 6, which outlaws using drones to fly in contraband to places of incarceration, and S.B. 72, a hunting regulations overhaul that also makes the shoal bass the official state riverine fish.

Also up for a vote is S.B. 77, a bill by Senate Rules Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, that while it criminalizes conduct regarding many kinds of monuments, detractors say is geared toward preventing action regarding Confederate monuments specifically. The bill prohibits monument relocation, a method discussed when localities deliberate about how to handle Confederate monuments in context.

Relocation is only allowed, according to the bill, when it involves making way for transportation construction projects, and the monument must then be put in a similar space, and “not be relocated to a museum, cemetery or mausoleum unless it was originally placed at such location.”

The state Legislative Black Caucus held its pre-sine die news conference Tuesday morning, and state Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain, spoke on S.B. 77.

“To be in a state which prides itself on local control, it seems antithetical to that principle, when we try to enshrine laws such as this,” Mitchell said. “The reality is, we need to be able to honor that principle of local control, where communities can set the standards that they believe best fit their citizens.

“The late Maynard Jackson used to say that new times, oftentimes, make ancient good uncouth. And certainly, we need to take that principle as we go forward when we’re talking about the Confederate monuments. We hope that this legislation will not pass in the remaining legislative days….”

Over in the upper chamber, the Senate Rules Committee put 25 bills up for consideration Thursday by the full Senate.

House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee Chairman Tom McCall, R-Elberton, tried to suggest the committee put H.B. 545 on the calendar. It’s a bill that’s been portrayed both as protecting farmers and legally stopping neighbors of industrial agriculture operations from taking those operations to court. McCall suggested to Mullis there must be a typo in that the bill wasn’t listed among those considered by the committee.

“It has to be a typo,” Mullis said. “I know how important that is to you farmers. … Sen. (John) Wilkinson’s been beating me over the head on that issue, and how important it is to him, too.”

Referencing a farming statement about food and clothes, McCall said he just wanted Mullis to be fed when he goes out to eat, and not be “nekkid.” Unfortunately for McCall, H.B. 545 did not make the cut for Thursday.

Also missing out were H.B. 445 — the Shore Protection Act revision that was heard Monday in Senate Rules — and H.B. 201, a bill from state Rep. Don Hogan, R-St. Simons Island, which prohibits people on live-aboard vessels from discharging raw sewage into the state’s estuaries.

“Once again, I’d like to bring the committee’s attention to House Bill 201, which is the live-aboard bill,” said state Sen. William Ligon, R-White Oak. “It just provides if you’re living aboard your boat, you have to have indoor storage tank for your waste. If we’re going to have oyster farming, we need to have live-aboard.”

Making it onto the Thursday Senate Rules calendar were H.B. 382 and H.B. 281. H.B. 382, introduced by state House Majority Leader Jon Burns, R-Newington, lays out the specifications needed for the state Department of Natural Resources to properly administer the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act.

“It’s just finishing up some good work we started last year with the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act, making sure we identify the exact folks we’re supposed to work with that benefit our communities, and offer some transparency and some accountability to make sure it’s present in that legislation,” Burns said.

H.B. 281, offered by state Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna, increases penalties for pimping and pandering for second and subsequent offenses, making them felonies. The first offense is a misdemeanor, but this bill would mandate 72 hours in jail for that first offense.

Old Ford building has new owners
 gjackson  / 

Another historically significant vacant building in Brunswick has been purchased as the result of the growing confidence in the future of the city’s downtown business district.

Courtney Prince, one of the new owners of the old Gould Ford dealership building at 1608 Newcastle St., said definitive plans to develop the two-story, 24,000-square-foot building haven’t been finalized but she envisions a combination of uses.

Prince was living in New York City until a year ago when her parents convinced her to spend some time in Brunswick. She attended a First Friday event and believed the downtown business district has untapped potential.

“I was really impressed,” she said. “We felt like Brunswick was where we wanted to invest our time.”

She and family members considered opening an art gallery in the historic building, constructed in 1925, but they are now leaning toward a variety of uses. Part of the first floor will likely be dedicated to office space, and the second floor will include apartments and more office space.

“It’s such a great building. We fell in love with it,” she said.

Rumors have circulated that part of the building on the first floor will be renovated into a bowling alley or bocce ball court, but Prince said a use for the large open area that was once the dealership showroom is still being considered. Another option would be to open a restaurant in that part of the building, she said.

“What I’d like to know is what the community thinks,” Prince said. “Whatever goes in, we’d like it to last. The goal is to be immeshed in the community. We want to get involved in the community to learn what makes the most sense.”

Structurally, the building is sound, with a solid metal roof and little work inside required to open office space on the first floor. Prince said the office spaces will be leased sometime this year after renovations are completed. And, there is plenty of parking behind the building.

A long, wide staircase lined with planters leads to the wide-open second floor.

Most of the upstairs area is a blank slate waiting for a drop ceiling, walls and utilities to transform it into four upscale apartments, with additional offices on the other side of the building. An industrial strength elevator will make it convenient when new residents move into apartments.

“We want it to last and benefit the community,” Prince said. “I see the potential. We just have to get involved.”

Library proposes rentals fees for new conference space
 tcooper  / 

With renovations to the Brunswick-Glynn County Library nearly complete, the Marshes of Glynn Libraries Board of Trustees is working on establishing rental fees for the new meeting and conference rooms.

Once complete, the library’s conference space will have enough space to seat 400, which can then be split up into three separate conference rooms with partition walls. Two new meeting rooms will have capacities of 20 and 30.

“We’ll have (the library) open, but we won’t be able to do rentals until the fee structure is approved,” Marshes of Glynn Libraries Director Geri Mullis said. “If they’re approved after the hearing, we will be able to start doing room reservations.”

The county’s finance committee recommended the Glynn County Commission approve Mullis’ request to begin with a public hearing on the new fee structure at its Tuesday meeting. The commission’s next regular meeting is April 4.

Mullis said renting the 20-seat and 30-seat meeting rooms for a day, if the fees are approved, would cost $40 and $60, respectively.

Conference rooms A and B can each hold 160 people, while conference room C can hold 80. Renting A or B would cost $300 while conference room C would run $160.

Combining conference rooms A and B would seat 320 and cost $500 a day to rent, while B and C combined would seat 240 and cost $400. All three together can seat 400 and would cost $600 to rent.

Under the proposed fee structure, each conference and meeting room could be rented for half a day at half price, and nonprofits would get a 15 percent discount on all room rates.

Other fees include a $30-per-hour after hours rate; a $30-per-hour security fee to pay for an off-duty police officer, if needed; and a $100 deposit, $250 for events at which alcohol would be served.

Committee member Bill Brunson said he felt the proposed $250 deposit for events with alcohol seemed low, and that Mullis should consider at least doubling it to $500.

“(If) three glasses of red wine stain your carpet, 250 dollars isn’t going to touch that,” Brunson said. “They’ll get the money back. I mean, it’s a deposit.”

Mullis said members of the library board had said the same thing, but other members wanted to set it lower to make sure the deposit wouldn’t be so high as to keep some people from renting space at all. She said $250 was the middle ground they settled on.

In addition, rental contracts allow the library to bill any expenses in excess of the deposit amount to the renter, Mullis explained.

Once the county commission approves the public hearing, citizens have 30 days to voice their opinions on the fees. After the 30 days, the commission will give final approval and the library can begin renting out the conference space, Mullis explained.

Library staff and members of the board will re-evaluate the rental fees every three months, Mullis said.

“The library board and staff all know that this is something that we’ll continue to monitor and check on, and it’s something that won’t be set for at least a year,” Mullis said. “If there are changes needed, we will follow through with that.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the renovated library located at 208 Gloucester St. is set for 4:30 p.m. on April 5.

In other business, the committee recommended the county commission spend $296,000 in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax 2016 revenue on a North Harrington Road drainage project; $228,087 on new server equipment and five annual payments of $52,805 to a company to manage and service the equipment and software; $24,950 to install 13 new laptops in police cruisers; and $99,484 on modernizing the audio and video equipment in the Glynn County Courthouse, among other things.

The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for April 23.

Sextortion, sovereign immunity bills head back for concurrence
 wwolfe  / 

Action Monday in the state Senate and Tuesday in the House resulted in two bills, with momentum behind them, returning to their original chambers. Monday, the Senate passed House Bill 311, providing a path for Georgians to sue governments acting unconstitutionally, and Tuesday, the House passed Senate Bill 9, which more-fully covers sexual extortion and includes penalties for sex acts against older teens by those with power over them.

S.B. 9, whose lead sponsor is Augusta Democratic state Sen. Harold Jones II, was carried in the House by state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth.

“If someone has photos of themselves, or images or videos or those kinds of things, this closes the gap under existing law that prohibits somebody in a position of power from coercing a person to give up photos they have of themselves, or videos of themselves,” Setzler said. “That’s really all Section 2 does — it closes the gap in our existing law.”

Regarding the other part of the bill, Setzler used as an example the matter of a 51-year-old community coach for a high school lacrosse team in his district who pursued sexual relationships with his students. The bill would prohibit this sort of behavior by agents of schools, or paid staff who aren’t teachers or principals. The present law doesn’t do that. Also, the bill includes tiers of penalties, with increasing penalties for worse offenses.

An amendment made Tuesday morning in the House Rules Committee also ensures those who are 20 years old or younger are only subject to misdemeanor penalties, as the bill is dealing with victims who are 16, 17, and 18-year-olds.

“We think that 21 years of age balance is really the appropriate threshold to being given a 1-25(-year) felony (sentence) and to be labeled a sex offender,” Setzler said.

The amendment was adopted and the bill passed 169-0. If the Senate votes to concur, the bill heads to the governor.

If not, there’s a conference committee to work out the differences in the versions of the bill passed by each chamber.

H.B. 311, whose lead sponsor is state Rep. Andy Welch, R-McDonough, was carried in the senate by state Sen. John F. Kennedy, R-Macon. Kennedy said in past years members complained legislation went too far or didn’t go far enough, but perhaps this was the “Goldilocks bill,” which was just right.

“The problem we have right now we have is that in the event we have a county government, a local government that is actively engaged in something that is unconstitutional, there’s no way to challenge that because of the sovereign immunity laws that we have,” Kennedy said.

He continued, “This simply allows citizens to do that — something that is probably at the core of democracy, as anything else we can vote on or any principle we can put in our form of government, to simply say, give citizens the opportunity in the event that the government is engaged in an unconstitutional act, that we have the right to go to the courts and invoke the judicial branch of our government, and say, wait a minute, there’s something going on that shouldn’t be done.”

Like S.B. 9, H.B. 311 returns to the House for concurrence.

The legislative session ends April 2.