Editorial: City, county's inability to work together to reach an agreement in service delivery clash shows lack of leadership

There have been accusations of breaking the law.

A lawsuit has been threatened.

Claims of acting in bad faith have been leveled.

Weeks upon weeks of back and forth among local officials.

Today, the Dalton City Council and the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners are finally expected to sit down to try to iron out differences in their joint service delivery agreement. The agreement lays out what services the governments will provide and how they will be paid for, with the goal of limiting duplicated services.

The ultimate goal of each side: to cut taxes.

The current service delivery agreement expires in 14 days. State law requires cities and counties to negotiate a new service delivery agreement every 10 years. The county, the City of Dalton and the other cities in the county (Cohutta, Tunnel Hill and Varnell) could become ineligible for state grants and other funding without an agreement.

More than 12 months have passed since city and county officials last met to talk about the service delivery agreement, according to a timeline City Administrator Jason Parker provided. On Sept. 29, 2018, there was an "informal meeting between city and county officials to discuss possible negotiation to resolve SDS (service delivery strategy); later in the day county communicated that they would not sit down to negotiate," according to information from the city. Since then, city and county officials have had phone calls and exchanged emails, but have had no face-to-face meetings.

That the City Council and Board of Commissioners did not meet for more than a year is shocking and exposes an immense leadership void among those 10 elected officials. Our local elected officials often laud themselves for their ability to work together. But this shows a stark division between them.

The two sides -- armed with their paid-by-the-hour lawyers -- are set to meet today at 10 a.m. for mediation at the James E. Brown Center on the Dalton State College campus. In tow with the City Council will be its special legal counsel, the McDonough-based law firm of Smith, Welch, Webb & White.

Much of those discussions will be behind closed doors, which we find extremely disappointing. State law allows mediations among governments to be held in executive session, but does not require such sessions to be held in secret, away from the public and the media. Elected members of the City Council and the Board of Commissioners don't believe the public should be involved in these talks involving the public's money.

City officials have taken secrecy to another level, refusing to release detailed figures concerning the service delivery agreement to both the county and the Daily Citizen-News. Parker claimed the figures are protected by attorney-client privilege since the special counsel produced them; therefore the city has a legal right not to release them. But legally, City Council members are free to release those documents. They choose secrecy over transparency. They don't believe the public should see public documents created with public money.

So this morning, commissioners will walk into mediation still unaware of the exact details of what the city wants. That's the City Council's strategy. Parker wrote in a letter to County Administrator Mark Gibson: "Any reasonable person who is facing litigation with another party would not reveal his or her strategy before negotiation."

The City Council has much to talk about. In an email Parker sent to Gibson last Thursday, Parker outlined the 39 service agreements to discuss in negotiation. Those services range from indigent funeral expenses to law enforcement to historic preservation to "illegal immigration control." Within those 39 categories are several subsets. For example, the public works category includes road and bridge construction, maintenance and stormwater management.

Chances are slim that several hours of negotiations will result in an agreement. But it's a start, and perhaps a step forward in the stalemated negotiations.

We remain hopeful that city and county officials can come to an equitable agreement on the services each provide. Mediation could be the next step in reaching an agreement. But it could also be the next step to litigation.

Having the service delivery agreement resolved in the courts should be the last resort. For the good of the community, our elected officials must be willing to sit down and talk face-to-face in meetings open to the public -- not in secret with lawyers telling our elected officials every step to take.

That isn't too much to ask.

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