About two dozen people filled a meeting room Tuesday at the Dalton Convention Center hoping to listen in to at least part of a mandatory mediation between the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners, the Dalton City Council and the city councils of Cohutta, Tunnel Hill and Varnell regarding their service delivery agreement, which spells out which services each government will provide and how they will be funded.
But their hopes were quickly dashed when Adele Grubbs, a senior judge with the Cobb County Superior Court overseeing the mediation, said that Supreme Court of Georgia rules for mandatory mediation require that the discussions be confidential and they can not be opened to the public and can not be discussed by participants outside of the mediation. The mediation, which lasted more than eight hours, ended without an agreement.
"Voluntary mediation is different, but these are the rules for mandatory mediation," Grubbs said.
In an interview during a later break, Grubbs said the participants could not waive the confidentiality requirement even if they wanted to.
The City of Dalton filed a lawsuit on Nov. 5 against Whitfield County and the other cities, in Whitfield County Superior Court, seeking mandatory mediation of the agreement, noting that if the governments fail to reach an agreement during the mediation, “Dalton will petition the court to resolve all remaining items in dispute.”
David Emerson, acting administrative judge of Georgia’s 7th Judicial Administrative District, appointed Lookout Mountain Superior Court Judge Ralph Van Pelt Jr. to preside over the lawsuit after the four Superior Court judges for the Conasauga Judicial Circuit, which includes Whitfield and Murray counties, recused themselves. Van Pelt, in turn, appointed Grubbs to oversee the mandatory mediation among the local governments.
Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who said in an interview last week he wanted at least the city's portion of the mediation to be open to the public, said he was disappointed with the ruling.
"That was the first I'd heard of it. I think it is good for the public to be informed," he said. "But that is not what the law is, and we have to follow the law."
Dalton City Attorney Gandi Vaughn said city officials had hoped to at least have a public session to present their arguments before going into confidential negotiations, but Grubbs said the rules did not allow that.
Dalton Tea Party Organizer Naomi Swanson was among those who showed up for the meeting.
"I'm disappointed. The mayor invited the public to come here, and I'm sure he wouldn't have done that if he'd known it would all be closed," she said.
The service delivery agreement between Whitfield County and the cities of Dalton, Cohutta, Tunnel Hill and Varnell expired on Oct. 31 after the Dalton City Council refused to agree to extend the existing agreement.
State law requires cities and counties to negotiate a new service delivery agreement every 10 years, spelling out which services the governments will provide and how they will be funded. The agreements are aimed at reducing duplication of services. The Whitfield County service delivery agreement — which is actually 39 separate agreements — covers everything from ambulance service to historic preservation to zoning.
Representatives of the cities and the county took part in almost eight hours of voluntary mediation on Oct. 17 at Dalton State College without a deal being reached. Those deliberations were also held in executive session, closed to the public and the media.
One difference between that session and the one on Tuesday is that staff members remained with the elected officials in October. But on Tuesday, only the attorneys remained in the session, though staff members were occasionally brought in briefly.
Vaughn said that was because Grubbs ruled that the confidentiality rules only allowed the elected officials and their attorneys in mandatory mediation.
"I can't talk about what happened in the mediation but one thing I think I can talk about that happened outside mediation is that we reached an agreement to study our fire protection and whether we are delivering it in the most efficient manner as possible," Pennington said.
County Board of Commissioners Chairman Lynn Laughter said it is "not a study of combining the fire departments."
"It's looking at what overlaps we might have and how we might improve fire protection," she said.
Laughter said commissioners are willing to bring in an outside consultant to do the study as long as the city pays for half of the study.
Other participants also declined to talk about the specifics of what was discussed but said they are "disappointed" with the results.
"We didn't reach a deal, and we hoped we could," said Commissioner Greg Jones. "We went in in good faith, and that's all I can say."
Dalton City Council member Annalee Harlan said she believes everyone who went in to the mediation "wanted to make substantial progress."
"And I do not believe we did, but I really can't say more than that," she said.
Dalton's lawsuit against the county is still in effect, but Andy Welch, a McDonough attorney who is the city's special counsel for the service delivery agreement, is a member of the Georgia House of Representatives and the next legislative session starts on Monday. The session typically does not adjourn until late March or early April
"The city and the county can continue to hold discussions during that period," said Vaughn. "But if there is a trial, that may be delayed until he is no longer in session."
Representatives of both Dalton and the county said they hope to continue discussions.
"Maybe after we have had a chance to digest what happened today and commissioners have had a chance to digest it, we can talk further and maybe resolve some of these issues," said Dalton City Council member Gary Crews. "But at this point, I do think we are headed for a trial."