Chairman's response causes council member, others to walk out
Laurens County Council Chairman Joe Wood ignited a firestorm including a temper burst by a fellow council member, a refusal by the sheriff to remove that council member, and a walk-out of citizens Tuesday night, from a meeting designed to save the county money.
A video of the meeting is posted under "Breaking News" on this website. In the aftermath, Councilman Ted Nash said he would not stand for re-election when his seat comes up in 2018. Councilman Dr. David Pitts said he was relying on lessons from his father to guide his votes on saving money for the county, which is experiencing a $1M/year budget deficit. Councilman Garrett McDaniel said, "We apologize, (citizens of Laurens County) deserve more from us, we need to get past our differences." Councilwoman Diane Anderson said, "We welcome you, we hope you come back not only when there are negatives (but) when there are positives, too." Councilman Stewart Jones had already walked out - protesting Woods' verbal assault on speaker Brenda Stewart. Council Vice-chairman Keith Tollison was absent - the 6th consecutive meeting that he has missed.
Wood said of Jones, "That's what happens when you have a council member put his own aspirations first, instead of representing his constituents." Before he left, Jones said to Wood, "I don't pay taxes to you."
It was all caught on video footage from two TV stations - and on a stationary camera Jones places in the council chambers to video all meetings.
Part of the footage shows Sheriff Don Reynolds refusing to comply with Wood's demand that the sheriff remove Jones from the council chambers. Reynolds said the council should listen to Stewart's recommendations to save the county money because she is a citizen, adding "What are we going to get by running each other down. What are we going to get out of that." In addition to being mad at Jones, Wood was peeved because Stewart would not sit down when he told her to.
The discussion started because Laurens County is going to contract with the SpyGlass company to review all county cellphones, data lines and land-lines to see if the county is getting what it pays for in telecommunications costs. County Administrator Jon Caime previously told council one savings found by SpyGlass was going to save the county $40,000 a year - for a data line installed in the late '90s that have not been used in several years and has not been disconnected. E911 Director Joey Avery said the county instructed the telecom provider to disconnect the line in 2005, but that was not done. The county has been paying for the unused line ever since - Avery said it was just an oversight, and the county actually will not save $40,000 a year by correcting the oversight. He said the actual savings is still being determined.
Wood added Avery's report to the council's Aug. 8 agenda. In a previous motion, council voted 4-2 to have the telephone audit, then Nash called Caime to say he wanted his "yes" vote reconsidered. A "no" vote by Nash would have made the contract vote 3-3, and the motion would have failed (under parliamentary rules). Caime put the audit on hold after Nash's call. That caused Stewart to write a blistering letter to local media saying the council should be unanimous in supporting Caime's efforts to find cost-savings - no matter where those savings are found.
"In business, when I saved my company money, I was always the hero - not the villain," Stewart said.
Wood said Stewart should get back to minding her business - "You say you've used companies like SpyGlass many times in the past, it seems like you need to take care of your own problems instead of proposing to straighten out ours."
Jones said he'd had enough.
He left the meeting, as Reynolds refused to escort him out - as Wood demanded, three times. Stewart left the meeting - and when McDaniel made a motion for adjournment into closed session, lots of other people left the meeting, also. Sheriff's deputies stood in the wings - between the council members and the departing audience. After the chamber cleared, McDaniel said, "I withdraw my motion" and the meeting went on. Council gave parting comments, and spent 16 minutes in closed session talking about an economic development matter in Laurens - identified as Project FERC (taking no action).
The situation remained tense outside, on the courthouse portico with departing audience members and council members mingling. Eventually, everybody went home, Jones retrived the video camera he uses to record all meetings and posted the 58-minute meeting video to YouTube about 11 last night. Stewart issued a 5-page statement re-inforcing what other speakers before her had told the council - that they are in support of Caime's efforts to reduce county spending. The 4-2 vote to have the telephone audit was restored (Nash withdrew his reconsideration, Tollison was absent for the vote), and Caime was left with a public vote of confidence.
Stewart's statement says, in part, "We applaud you for hiring Mr. Caime as the County Administrator and ask that you support him in the work he is doing. Give him time to make a difference - he already is!"