After more than an hour behind closed doors in a legal meeting with Chief State Court Judge David Watkins and State Court Judge William Jennings, Augusta commissioners offered the former Chief Probation Officer Marie Boulton a new job.
Boulton will become the new deputy warden at the Richmond County Correctional Institution with an annual salary of $79,500.
This new addition to RCCI comes as a result of Watkins’ sudden actions a few days ago to shake up the Richmond County Probation Office that was just created by the city last year.
Apparently, before Watkins even officially became the chief state court judge, he called a meeting with Boulton and asked her to resign.
According to several Augusta commissioners, Boulton appeared to have been doing an excellent job as the chief probation officer, but Watkins still wanted her to step down.
That same week, Watkins also asked State Court Administrator Jan Hardy, who’s worked in the court for 38 years, to resign.
Both Hardy and Boulton refused Watkins’ request.
As a result of Watkins’ request for her to resign, Boulton wisely retained local attorney Jack Long as her legal counsel. (Hence the quick settlement offer of a new job from the city. Let’s face it, commissioners get a little nervous when Jack Long is around. It’s typically much easier and definitely cheaper to settle with him than to battle Long in court.)
But eyebrows were raised about Watkins’ actions because the rumor was that the judge wanted to replace Boulton and Hardy with two former Sentinel Offender Services employees.
Sentinel Offender Services was the private probation company that was hit by more than a dozen lawsuits filed in both Richmond and Columbia counties over the past few years.
For many Augusta commissioners, they wanted to get as far away from former Sentinel employees as possible.
However, speculation was that Watkins wasn’t going to have that. Instead, he wanted former Sentinel employee Niya Barnes to replace Hardy, and Crystal Page, who previously ran the Sentinel office in Augusta, to replace Boulton.
It will be interesting to see who lands in those slots now that Boulton has a new job at RCCI.
But more concerning is the way in which this entire change in the in-house probation office came about.
Watkins made these moves without even discussing the changes with commissioners. As a result, it highly irritated several of the city leaders and the mayor.
All commissioners wanted was a little cooperation and communication from Watkins. Instead, they were left in the dark.
“It would be nice if Judge Watkins would actually reach out (to us),” Augusta Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said last week. “I have not heard anything bad about the lady that we hired to run our probation office. There was nothing from Judge Slaby that indicated anything was wrong.”
Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis agreed that the issue was not handled well and he was clearly frustrated with the chaos surrounding the in-house probation office.
“We try to be friends with the judiciary and we will continue to do that, but we have to have partners in the process,” Davis said. “Right now, that is not necessarily what is happening.”
While the public doesn’t know what really went on behind the closed-door legal meeting, the judges and commission need to be more open about the future of the Richmond County Probation Office.
After all, the city has spent a lot of time and energy trying to get an in-house probation office up and running.
The last thing Richmond County needs is to go backwards.
Do we have to once again remind the commission about the complaints against Sentinel? City leaders were constantly hearing concerns from constituents that Sentinel had been ruthless in its attempts to collect excessive past probation fees.
The lawsuits against Sentinel showed the company was overcharging probationers and, in some instances, using incarceration to coerce payment from probationers. Let’s not go back there, Richmond County.
The judges need to help strengthen the probation office, not tear it down.