Dalton officials refuse to release information requested by Whitfield County, newspaper

Whitfield County Board of Commissioners members say they will not agree to meet with Dalton City Council members concerning the service delivery agreement that covers the county unless city officials tell them exactly what portions of the agreement the city wants to renegotiate and explain how the city officials reached a conclusion that city property owners are overtaxed.

But as of Tuesday, city officials were refusing to release that information to county officials or to the media.

In a September letter to the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners, Mayor Dennis Mock and City Council members said the city wishes "to renegotiate the current service delivery strategy (SDS) among Whitfield County and its municipalities. After reviewing the services provided by the city and those provided by the county, the City of Dalton has identified that city taxpayers are paying approximately 3.3 mills more in county property taxes than is fair. This amounts to approximately $4 million annually in property taxes."

The letter did not explain how city officials arrived at those numbers, and city officials are refusing to release information on how they arrived at those numbers to either the commissioners or to the media.

On Thursday, the Daily Citizen-News sent City Administrator Jason Parker a request under the Georgia Open Records Act requesting "any reports, including text and email messages among members of the City Council, the city administrator and the chief financial officer, regarding how the city government has determined which services provided by Whitfield County its residents are taxed to support but do not benefit from as well as how it determined how much those services cost city property owners."

On Tuesday, Parker responded to that request.

"There are no reports, text messages or emails in the city’s records which are responsive to your request," he wrote in an email. "The city engaged with legal counsel for guidance and investigation of the service delivery strategy negotiation with Whitfield County, and how particular services are funded. All analysis of the current service delivery strategy and related funding, which could be responsive to your request, was conducted by the legal counsel and, as such, these documents and/or communication with the legal counsel are attorney-client information and/or attorney work product, both of which are exempt from disclosure under the open records laws. The investigation and analysis conducted by legal counsel is fully and/or partially exempt from production under the Open Records Act pursuant to O.C.G.A. §§ 50‐18‐72(a)(1), 50‐18‐72(a)(20)(A), 50‐18‐72(a)(21); 50‐18‐72(a)(41); and 50‐18‐72(a)(42)."

Mock said Tuesday the council will not waive attorney-client privilege to release that information.

"That's up to our attorney, and I do not believe he wants us to do that at this point," he said.

Council member Gary Crews said he thinks the city should release the information "at the appropriate time."

Asked when the appropriate time will be, Crews said, "That will be our attorney's decision."

City Council members in August appointed attorneys from the McDonough law firm of Smith, Welch, Webb & White as a special counsel to represent the city in these negotiations. The agreement between the city and Smith, Welch, Webb & White calls for the attorneys to be paid $225 to $300 an hour.

Under state law, cities and counties must negotiate a new service delivery agreement every 10 years, spelling out which services the different governments will provide and how they will be funded. The agreements are aimed at reducing duplication of services. Without such an agreement, the county, the City of Dalton and the other cities in the county become ineligible for state grants and other funding and permits.

The current service delivery agreement between the cities and the county expires on Oct. 31 and covers services ranging from fire protection to operations of the Dalton-Whitfield County Public Library to building permits.

Commissioners and the councils of the other cities have voted to recertify the existing agreement.

That leaves the Dalton City Council, which has been locked in a dispute with the Board of Commissioners for almost a year over whether city taxpayers should fund part of the administration of the services paid for by the county's special tax districts as well as the sheriff's office's patrol division. The special tax districts pay for the county fire department and the county's share of joint services.

The state Department of Community Affairs has set a deadline of Oct. 31 for the service delivery agreement to be recertified by all the local governments and accepted by the state.

Dalton City Council members have invited commissioners and representatives from the cities of Cohutta, Tunnel Hill and Varnell to mediation on the service delivery agreement on Thursday, Oct. 17, at 10 a.m. in Dalton State College's Brown Center, room 105.

In a Monday email to Parker, County Administrator Mark Gibson wrote, "I want to make sure that it is clear that the Board of Commissioners and other cities are willing to have meaningful discussions regarding any matter the City of Dalton deems to be important. However, we are not willing to mediate blindly on Oct. 17. Once again, please provide which service delivery agreements Dalton believes must be renegotiated at this time as well as Dalton’s proposed amendments, and please provide specific calculations that support Dalton’s claim that it is significantly overtaxed."

Gibson also asked if city officials would agree to a temporary extension of the current service delivery agreement. County officials have suggested such an extension while discussions are underway so that no local governments lose access to state funding and permits.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Lynn Laughter said Tuesday if the county doesn't receive the information it has requested by 5 p.m. on Wednesday, commissioners will not agree to mediation on Oct. 17. Commissioners Harold Brooker, Greg Jones and Barry Robbins agreed with that position.

"You don't go into a meeting blind," Jones said.

Cohutta Mayor Ron Shinnick said he does not think it would be to the smaller cities' best interest to go to the meeting without more information.

"I'm not even sure what they want to meet about. I have real concerns about this," he said.

Varnell Mayor Tom Dickson said he doesn't think there will be any mediation "unless we get more information on what they want to discuss. I haven't heard that there has been an agreement to have a meeting. If they want to get together eventually, I imagine we will, but I will be out of town on the 17th, so I won't be able to be there."

Asked in an email if the City of Dalton will provide more information to the county, Parker wrote: "We responded to the county’s request for information, saying we feel there should be no prerequisites to mediation. We believe that the information we discuss in mediation will not be difficult to analyze. Since the mediation is set for Oct. 17, 2019, with a mediator the county has said is agreeable, there will be plenty of time between the 17th and the end of the month to work out the details of an agreement. We also repeated our request for the county to sit down with us at mediation and get this discussion underway."

Regarding the county's request to sign a temporary extension of the current service delivery agreement, Parker wrote: "It does not make sense to discuss an extension of the SDS (service delivery strategy) agreement before we even meet. We tried to have this discussion with the county twice last year, but to no avail. The city is willing to discuss a short extension of the SDS, but not before we sit down together at the mediation to see what can be worked out. Too much is at stake for our community to put this matter off."

Asked if the city is negotiating in good faith even though it is withholding information, Crews said he thinks it is.

When asked the same question, Mock said, "This is part of the attorney's strategy, and that's what we hired him to do."

Mock was also asked if the roles were reversed and the county was seeking mediation but refusing to provide information requested by the city, if the City Council would agree to talks.

"That all depends on the situation, but we are doing what our attorney advises, and that's what we pay him for," he said.

Dalton City Council members Tyree Goodlett, Annalee Harlan and Denise Wood did not immediately return telephone messages Tuesday afternoon.

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