The county commission has run into choppy waters since Sam Olens resigned as chairman and parlayed his leadership and consensus-building skills into a successful race for state attorney general.
Olens kept the boat in the middle of the stream with an even hand on the tiller, but now seasoned courthouse observers are saying it looks like the commission is trying to reverse roles with the county school board that could write a how-to manual on self-inflicted wounds.
In other words, the engine is now knocking and the exhaust pipe is belching smoke from what heretofore was one of the finest-oiled local government machines in Georgia. The time frame for this turnaround? Olens resigned at the end of March and new chairman Tim Lee won the July 28 election - a matter of a few months.
Lee barely had time to test out the gavel before a slew of unpleasant surprises started surfacing.
As one courthouse observer quipped, "The county has been hit by one swinging gate after another: First, it was Chamber-gate, the plan by the Cobb Chamber of Commerce to take over the county economic development office. There was Streetlight-gate, the audit that revealed $3 million-plus was diverted from streetlight maintenance to other operations for six years. Then there was Mule-gate, the deal for two mules bought for a Hyde Farm "demonstration" that cost taxpayers more than $70,000 before the mules were sold at a loss. And Dunn-gate, that outrageous sweetheart $25,000 consulting deal for retiring county elections director Sharon Dunn before it was shot down by Thea Powell. And there was county manager David Hankerson's no-bid purchase of four dump trucks. And now, in another revelation, there's Bedminster-gate. The county has launched its own investigation after it was learned last week that, unbeknownst to the public, for years the county diverted water system revenue to subsidize the odorous Bedminster operation started under Byrne's chairmanship and later divested to a private company.
Tightening the screws on Hankerson, the commissioners told him last week to start complying with an obscure 1983 state law requiring the county clerk, Candace Ellison, to keep a daily calendar of his actions and copies of sole source requests or contracts. Until the flak started hitting the fan over Hankerson, nobody knew about the law but now he's under orders to conform as closely as possible to the requirements for keeping minutes of the county managers actions.
Despite the flak Hankerson and the county have been getting recently, generally he has been regarded as well qualified and competent since taking on the manager's job in 1993. Since then he has received a pay raise of 5 to 8 percent every three years when his contract was renewed, giving him total annual compensation of nearly $270,000 this year. Pay raises usually mean better than satisfactory work. Hankerson's friends and supporters say he's getting blamed for actions done at the behest of Olens, and his predecessor Byrne, and endorsed by the commission - such as the mule purchases - but some commissioners now are trying to throw him overboard. He's blamed for everything lately short of the shellacking President Obama took Nov. 2.
So people are asking what is behind all the stuff hitting the fan. The answer from a well-connected politico is: Thea Powell, chosen by the commission to fill Lee's seat after he became chairman. Powell has been anything but an interim seat warmer or potted plant even though she goes off the board the first of the year when duly elected JoAnn Birrell takes office.
"Thea Powell and (commissioner) Bob Ott are fueling the fire to embarrass or harass Hankerson out of office before his contract expires at the end of the year," the in-the-know source said. "His friends say he's done a good job but is being insulted by having to abide by a law that he and other county managers consider ridiculous and nobody follows. But now he's being hovered over and treated like a misbehaving child. They keep him twisting in the wind. It's no way to treat a professional with all the experience and the record that Hankerson has. After all, he got along with the ramrod, Bill Byrne, when he was chairman."
Commissioner Woody Thompson, a lame duck who will finish his term in two years, is quietly backing the efforts of Ott and Powell, our source says. That leaves Lee and Commissioner Helen Goreham the only Hankerson supporters, meaning if there was a vote now, he would lose 3-2. But the threesome would wind up with egg on their faces because the vote would most likely be reversed after Birrell is seated in January.
Hankerson is said to be embarrassed by these revelations coming out of the courthouse and hurt by those who have turned against him, but insiders say he'll probably try to ride out the storm with Birrell coming on board. However, some think Hankerson, who's in good health at 64 and apparently wants to continue working, may just look elsewhere for greener pastures and calmer waters after the first of the year. While he's been questioned since Olens left and Lee took over, Hankerson's resume certainly would be impressive - certainly his near decade stint with Olens during which Cobb had perhaps its most effective chairman/county manager team in the county's history.
As for Powell's intentions, our courthouse observer says she is stirring the pot because she wants a full term in her own right - and that she will go for the brass ring, the chairman's seat, in the 2012 election. A former colleague who served with Powell when she was on the commission previously (1986-90) says she has laser-like focus and the strongest work ethic of any member of the commission. This source said, "It's not surprising that she will go after a higher office."
There is also speculation that Ott will run for chairman next go-around. He denies it and says he needs to keep flying for Delta until he hits 60 because of the company's retirement plan.
The decision by Cobb Superior Court Judge Dorothy Robinson, who was served on the court since 1980 and is its most senior member, not to seek another term when her office expires on Dec. 31, 2012, has set in motion a scramble for that judgeship and for a position on the City Council.
Among those who are believed to vie for her seat are State Court Judge Roland R. Castellanos and State Court Chief Judge Toby Prodgers.
Although Councilman Van Pearlberg previously told Around Town that his ambition was to succeed District Attorney Pat Head, Pearlberg now intends to vie for Robinson’s position on the Cobb Superior Court, while prominent defense attorney Vic Reynolds intends to replace Head as DA.
News of Pearlberg’s plan has prompted a number of residents in Pearlberg’s Ward 4 to consider replacing him, most notable among them former Mayor Bill Dunaway, along with: Ray Worden, who owns a frame shop on Kennesaw Avenue; appraiser Mike Wilson, who formerly served as the Marietta Redevelopment Corporation’s broker; and former City Councilman Andy Morris. Morris beat Pearlberg in a 2001 runoff by six votes to replace retiring Paul Sabiston, although he did not seek re-election when his term expired in 2005 and Pearlberg replaced him.
City Council members are reportedly not doing backflips at the prospect of Dunaway returning to City Hall. Hearing that Dunaway would try to replace Pearlberg, Mayor Steve Tumlin quipped that should that happen, it would prompt Tumlin and his rival on the Council, Philip Goldstein, to become the best of friends.
Rumor has it that Dunaway wanted to seek another term as mayor but those close to him counciled him otherwise, saying it would probably lead to an embarrassing disaster.
Cobb County Division I State Court Judge Rusty Carlisle said he’s going to retire next month, going out the same way he came in — with Judge Nancy Campbell.
Carlisle took the bench in 1987 along with Campbell, and a going away party is planned for them on Dec. 17 on the third floor of the state court building from 2 to 4 p.m.
Carlisle said he announced he would retire back in April, but waited until after the election to say just when he was going to retire because he “liked the idea of keeping people in suspense” as to which governor — Sonny Perdue or Nathan Deal — would appoint his replacement. Carlisle said he has already advised Perdue of his retirement date, and Perdue will be the top dog with his pick for Carlisle’s replacement.
Around Town has learned the likely choice as Carlisle’s successor will come from among former prosecutor Marsha Lake, Cobb Division II State Court Judge Maria Golick or Rob Leonard, an attorney in private practice.