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Is Hughes still Chatham County’s lobbyist? Open Records request provides little insight

By Lou Phelps, Savannah Business Journal

Feb. 17, 2014 – County Commission Chair Al Scott acknowledged last Friday in a public “statement of personal privilege” that he had, on his own, ended the County’s annual contract with Hughes Public Affairs, led by Lee Hughes, Chatham County’s lobbying firm for eight years.

Hughes was called into a room back in October and told that Scott was ending his contract - without discussing the matter in public, or informing his fellow Commissioners. The firm was mid-way through a five year contract that was renewable annually, and budgeted in the current fiscal year operating budget. 

Several Commissioners believe he still has a valid contract, and must be paid.

Scott’s decision was uncovered in January by The Savannah Business Journal, after questioning why Stephen Green of Morris Manning Martin Green Consulting had attended a meeting on the County’s ‘Legislative Priorities’ and Hughes had not – one of the primary responsibilities of the County’s lobbying firm.

Based on interviews with various sources, and in conversations with four of the County Commissioners, SBJ also learned that the majority of the Commissioners were not aware that Lee Hughes had been let go.

Coastal Empire News (CEN) filed an Open Records Request with Chatham County on Friday, Jan. 31 asking for copies of all written contracts between the County and any lobbying firm or individuals who were registered lobbyists, and all emails or other correspondence between County Chairman Al Scott and any lobbyist or consultant firm regarding lobbying activities.   (See documents requested below.)

At the $450.00 luncheon at the Pink House on that Scott held on Sat. Jan. 24 with the County’s State Reps and State Senators – a meeting he acknowledged last week was “hastily called and… without a lot of prep,” - he presented seven members of the legislative delegation with County’s annual legislative priorities.  

Rep. Ron Stephens has said in interviews that the impression they were given was that it was a list formulated by all of the Commissioners. However, the topic has not appeared on a public agenda, and the Commissioners were never asked their opinions at a regularly scheduled meeting or workshop – normal practice in prior years. 

On that list, Scott had included the de-annexation of Hutchinson Island, as well.  That story broke in the local meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 27, with Mayor Edna Jackson and most of the Savannah Aldermen saying they had no prior information that Scott had asked Rep. Ron Stephens to file a bill to pursue de-annexation.   

Scott stated last Friday that he had had a meeting with the Mayor and City Manager and raised the issue, “and they didn’t say anything, so I took that as agreement.”  He also said he sent a letter regarding de-annexation to the Mayor and City Manager Stephanie Cutter though they never received it prior to January 28 when Scott’s actions with the legislators broke.

Rep. Stephens, since learning that the Commissioners had never discussed or voted for the de-annexation, has stated that he will not be filing legislation on the matter.  

Green is one of two principals of Morris Manning Martin Green Consulting Group, an affiliated company of the Atlanta law firm Morris Manning Martin, LLC.  The consulting practice has been hired by a developer group seeking $6 million from the State of Georgia for a new bulkhead and retaining wall on Hutchinson Island, east of the Weston resort, to allow them to complete a residential and commercial development.  That group is led by John Cay.  

Cay gave an interview to The Savannah Business Journal on Tuesday, Jan. 28, where he stated clearly that he had not asked for Hutchinson to be de-annexed, and said that his group had hired Green’s firm to help them with the development plan.

Commissioner’s Reactions to Scott’s “Personal Privilege”

At Friday’s meeting, Scott told the public - and his fellow Commissioners - that he had, in fact, ended Hughes’contract on his own “back in the Fall” because he “was not happy with Hughes work” and that he felt Hughes had a “potential conflict of interest based on his client list.”  He then went on to say that he didn’t think the County needs a lobbyist.  

As soon as he concluded his statement, however, Commissioners Lori Brady and Dean Kicklighter spoke up – both stating that they had read Hughes’ contract which they believe must be ended in writing, and further stating that they objected to the fact that Scott had not brought the matter before the Commissioners.  Brady called it illegal, and said that as far as she was concerned Hughes Public Relations “still has a contract.” 

Kicklighter agreed, and said that while he thought Scott “was a man of good intentions… I do believe there was an error in procedure.”  And he made clear that he strongly objected to Scott making decisions on his own without discussing this type of policy decision with the other commissioners.  “You had no legal authority” to end the contract, and said that Scott could act on his own but could not act “on behalf of the County Commissioners on his own.”

In interviews after the meeting, Scott’s decision to make a statement appears to have come at the urging of Commissioner Tony Center who met with Scott for more than an hour on Thursday to get answers to questions he had regarding the lobbying contract move, the Hutchinson de-annexation, communication and other matters.  Brady gave Center credit for forcing Scott to address the various issues in public.  Scott had not put either the de-annexation or the contract issue on the Commission’s agenda for Friday’s meeting.   

And, Center said Monday, that his understanding was that the County still has a contract with Hughes, and that Hughes will be paid $ 44,000.00 this year for services.

CEN’s Open Records Request and Results

Instead of receiving a response to CEN’s request for documents within three days as required by Georgia’s Open Records law, the County Attorney’s office, led by Atty. Jonathan Hart, informed CEN on Feb. 4 that they could not respond until Friday, Feb. 14. No reason for the delay was provided.  

At 8:30 a.m. on that date, the County Attorney’s staff stated they “almost had all the documents together,” but it would take a little longer before they could be received.

The documents were released later that morning, but only after the conclusion of the Commission’s regularly scheduled meeting that day at which County Chairman Al Scott took his “point of personal privileged” to make a statement to address a number of questions raised by CEN and the Savannah Morning News about the County’s lobbying activities, and Scott’s de-annexation move.  He did not acknowledge that he did anything wrong. 

Only two things were provided to CEN:  a copy of Lee Hughes’ contract signed back in January 2011 which is available online by the County’s Purchasing Dept (the contract Chairman Scott said Friday that he had ended), and an invoice a from Morris Manning Martin, LLP. in Atlanta for $ 1,630.00 for 3.60 hours of ‘Professional Services’ billed at the rate of $452.77 per hour.  

The firm’s work was performed last April and May by E. Emerson and A Roehl, and regarded research into federal health care regulations, the definition of part-time employee and drafting and revising a memorandum.   

Also included was a copy of the check. The payment was made out of the County’s Account #6509130 52.11001.  It was the only payment to the firm during 2012 and 2013, according to the response.

County Attorney Jonathan Hart replied that any emails or opinions between him and Scott or other County staff regarding retaining Stephen Green’s services was protected under O.C.G.A. 50-18-72 (a) (41).

And, Hart replied that there are no emails written by Al Scott and Stephen Green to each other between October 1, 2013 and Jan. 31, 2014.

CEN’s Jan. 31, 2014 Open Records Request:

- Any written contracts that exit between individuals or firms hired to lobby for Chatham County, including by not limited to Stephen Green, individually or as a representative of Morris Manning Martin Green Consulting Group, LLC. or any other firm or entity including Lee Hughes and his firm Hughes Public Relations for the years 2012, 2013 and 2014.

- Any emails, memos, letters or opinions issued by County Attorney Jonathan Hart to Chatham County Chairman Al Scott or any County Commissioner or County Staff employee or consultant regarding retaining the consulting services of Stephen Green, individually, or as a representative of any consulting firm, included but not limited to Morris Manning Martin Green Consulting Group, LLC.  for the benefit of Chatham County.   

- All emails between Chatham County Chairman Al Scott and Stephen Green from October 1, 2013 until Jan. 31, 2014. 

- Information on any payments made to date, or any Accounts Payable owed, by Chatham County to Stephen Green, individually, or as a representative of any consulting firm, included but not limited to Morris Manning Martin Green Consulting Group, LLC. during 2013 and up until today for services rendered. 

- Any emails, memos, letters, agenda items or meeting minutes that outline when the Chatham County commissioners discussed and voted to enter into a contract with Stephen Green individually, or as a representative of any consulting firm, included but not limited to Morris Manning Martin Green Consulting Group, LLC. 

 

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