Columbia County’s mission is a simple one.
“To provide efficient and cost-effective service in a professional manner,” according to the government’s comprehensive policy manual.
For years, Columbia County has received nothing but praise for its leadership and efficient service.
Columbia County Board of Commissioners frequently brags it represents a world-class community that has the highest level of ethical and performance standards.
People are definitely taking notice.
Money magazine ranked Evans No. 43 nationally among the best places to live and Columbia County No. 1 in job growth in recent years.
With the school system ranking among the Top 10 in Georgia, NerdWallet, a consumer advocacy website, named Evans as the best place in Georgia to raise a small family.
But as the county continues to expand and flourish, there appears to be some growing pains within the government that have some longtime county employees suffering the consequences.
“Effective July 27, 2015, I hereby submit my resignation as Director of Community & Leisure Services with Columbia County, GA to pursue other professional opportunities,” the July 27 letter to County Administrator Scott Johnson states.
That’s all it said.
Smith returned from a three-day vacation and resigned, effective immediately.
According to Johnson, that’s the end of the story.
“Barry had not been disciplined prior to his resignation,” Johnson said in a statement provided to the Metro Spirit by the county’s public relations manager Calie Cook.
In fact, in the most recent evaluation of Smith that was completed on Nov. 7, 2014, Johnson gave Smith an overall score of 4.15 out of 5. Any score that is 4 or above is considered a “valued performer.”
In his comments about Smith, Johnson said he was an “effective manager” that routinely “meets or exceeds organizational goals and objectives.”
Smith was hired by Columbia County in April of 2003. His salary at the time of his resignation was $108,794, according to Johnson.
Under his leadership, Smith oversaw the operations for Columbia County’s Rental Facilities and Venue Department, the Columbia County Libraries, Board of Elections, Parks and Recreation, the UGA Extension Services, Animal Services and the Savannah Rapids Pavilion Visitor’s Center.
While Smith did not return messages from the Metro Spirit seeking comment, there has been a great deal of speculation about what caused this department head who had been on the job for more than 12 years to abruptly leave.
But this hasn’t been the only sudden departure by a department director in Columbia County in recent years.
In October 2013, Columbia County experienced another abrupt resignation by a longtime employee.
Richard Harmon, the director of Columbia County’s Development Services Division who had been with the county since 1999, suddenly resigned without a word to the shock of many throughout the county.
But during the county’s reorganization a few years ago, Harmon was stripped of some of his duties. County leaders insisted that the reason for the restructuring was simply because Harmon had too much on his plate.
The county would run more efficiently if the workload was divvied up, they claimed.
Following Harmon’s sudden resignation, Johnson told the Columbia County News-Times that the county was simply moving in a different direction.
“As a result of our restructuring of departments with an emphasis on how we deal with development, we’ve had a change in philosophy on how we approached those issues,” Johnson told the newspaper. “We had a meeting with Richard on several items and (his resignation) was a result of that meeting.”
Paul Scarbary, the county’s former facilities services manager, was moved into the Development Services Division position.
But that change did not come without controversy.
After Scarbary was named as the new director of the Development Services Division, some members of the county’s Construction Advisory Board objected to the fact that he wasn’t a Certified Building Official.
The advisory board felt the new director needed to be a CBO in order to fully understand the county’s building and construction codes and reinforce those standards with the local inspectors.
However, shortly after this issue was raised in October 2013, it was quickly dropped when Johnson held a meeting with more than 150 local builders insisting that the county was facing several problems regarding construction codes and permitting that was resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in stormwater and road repairs.
While Harmon’s name was never brought up during the meeting, Johnson called for more stringent enforcement of county codes and procedures, according to the Columbia County News-Times.
“With so many things going on and trying to do them all at the same time, nothing was being done well,” Johnson was quoted as saying.
Johnson added that the reorganization of the county’s various development departments was designed to make the process of construction run more smoothly.
Harmon, like Smith, never publicly addressed the reason for his sudden resignation.
The Kay Allen Saga
When everything finally seemed to be settling down in the Columbia County after Harmon’s departure, one of the biggest controversies the county has ever seen blew up in its face.
Allegations began to surface that longtime Columbia County Tax Commissioner Kay Allen had improperly profited from tax collection contracts with Harlem and Grovetown.
The controversy hung over Columbia County like a dark cloud for several months because Allen, along with her husband, then District 3 Commissioner Charles Allen, had served in public office for a total of more than four decades.
Two days before Christmas in 2013, Columbia County commissioners sent a letter to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal asking him to look into alleged misconduct by Kay Allen.
The Dec. 23 letter to the governor was direct and upfront about the allegations against Kay Allen.
“In October of this year, the Columbia County Commission was informed of a situation that involved the Tax Commissioner collecting fees from municipalities contrary to law,” the commissioners wrote. “Specifically, we discovered Columbia County Tax Commissioner Kay K. Allen contracted with the cities of Grovetown and Harlem personally and collected a fee which she retained as personal compensation that should have been remitted to the county.”
The Columbia County commissioners laid everything out on the table.
“In 2013, this fee totaled $36,000 but since 2009 the monies exceed $160,000,” the letter stated. “Until this revelation, the commission had no knowledge of this arrangement and it was never reflected on any weekly or monthly reports she submitted.”
The letter stated if the accusations against Kay Allen were accurate, it was clearly in violation of a 2007 amendment to Georgia law which stated, “The governing authority, not the tax commissioner, may contract with municipalities to accept, receive and retain compensation if the county had more than 50,000 parcels.”
The board acknowledged that Columbia County met that threshold in 2009.
“While this had been the practice for many years, we understand that the Tax Commissioner was made aware of the change in law in 2007 at a state training conducted by the Georgia Department of Revenue,” the letter stated. “Notwithstanding this training, each year beyond 2009, allegedly she has collected these fees by preparing hand-written invoices that were delivered to the municipalities by her personally.”
And it appeared that Kay Allen was personally profiting from these fees, the Columbia County commissioners wrote the governor.
“The checks for these fees were written to Columbia County Tax Commissioner attention Kay Allen, but were deposited into her personal account,” the letter to the governor stated. “Both municipalities assumed the payments to the Tax Commissioner were going to the governing authority according to law.”
This was earth-shattering news for Columbia County and it all came about after former Chief Deputy Tax Commissioner Dwight Johnson, who had worked for the department for 15 years, became the whistleblower after he was fired in October of 2013
After what he describes as being unjustly fired by Kay Allen, Dwight Johnson met with the FBI and the investigation into the tax commissioner’s actions began.
But his allegations against Kay Allen did not only relate to her improperly profiting from
collecting fees from other municipalities, it also discussed her treatment of him as an employee.
Dwight Johnson insisted that soon after he made the mistake of telling Kay Allen that he planned on running for tax commissioner in 2016, his relationship with his longtime boss quickly deteriorated.
He released a recording to The Metro Spirit of one particular conversation he had with Kay Allen that immediately raised concerns about how some employees in Columbia County are being treated.
“She began putting me through a lot of abuse. She started giving me these menial tasks to do,” Dwight Johnson said of Kay Allen, adding that he was frequently told to dump the trash, pick up food for the office and unload 28-pound boxes filled with the tag shipments. “I didn’t feel like I was above doing any of that, but I was like, ‘You are paying me almost $37 an hour to unload the truck?’ That doesn’t make walk-around sense to me.”
But Dwight Johnson, who was making $78,000 a year, said the “straw that broke the camel’s back” was a bizarre request Allen made to him in October 2013, only days before he was terminated from his position.
“She told me to report to Kroger,” he told the Metro Spirit, in all seriousness. “I asked her, ‘Mrs. Allen, are you crazy?’ And she said, ‘I might be.’ She said, ‘I want you to report to Kroger. I want you to wear your work clothes and walk around the store for eight hours.’”
Dwight Johnson could not believe his ears. But he said he felt like he didn’t have any other choice but to follow his boss’ directions.
“Well, I had worked at Kroger on Columbia Road for about five years when I was in college and I decided, ‘Well, I will go there because maybe some people will know me and I won’t go to jail for just walking around the store for eight years,” he said.
After his “shift” that day at Kroger, Dwight Johnson went out to his truck in the Kroger parking lot and decided to record a telephone call to Kay Allen at her office.
The recording clearly has a call being placed to the tax commissioner’s office. Johnson is then transferred to Allen’s direct line.
The following is a transcript of the conversation:
Johnson: “Hi, Mrs. Allen. This is Dwight.”
Johnson: “I did as you asked me or directed me on Friday to report to Kroger on Monday. And I just need to know where you would like me to report tomorrow.”
Allen: “Are you over there now?.. Are you at Kroger now?”
Johnson: “I just need to know where to report to tomorrow.”
Allen (her voice raised): “Are you at Kroger, now?!?”
Johnson: “Uh, does that have anything to do with tomorrow?”
Allen: “Yes, Ma’am, it does.” (It appears that Allen called Johnson, “Ma’am.”)
Johnson: “What does it have to do with tomorrow?”
Allen: “Where are you now?”
Johnson: “I need to know where to be tomorrow.”
Allen: “Dwight, your assignment was to be at Kroger for eight hours today. Are you at Kroger now?”
Johnson: “Eight hours were put in. Yes, Ma’am.”
Allen: “I beg your pardon?”
Johnson: “Yes, Ma’am. The eight hours were put in. I just need to know where I need to take my next eight hours tomorrow.”
Allen: “The eight hours were put in? And what time did you report to Kroger?”
Johnson: “I could give you the exacts, but I don’t have them right offhand.”
Allen: “Well, I don’t know why. It was just maybe a few hours ago. Are you at Kroger now?”
Johnson: “Does that have anything to do with anything?”
Allen: “Dwight, you were assigned eight hours at Kroger.”
Johnson: “Yes ,Ma’am.”
Allen: “OK? “
Johnson: “That’s exactly what I did.”
Both Johnson and Allen begin talking at the same time and Allen clearly gets frustrated and announces she is headed to Kroger.
Allen: “OK. I’m coming over. Bye.”
Johnson (who assumes Allen is headed to the Kroger in Evans, tries to tell her that he is at the Kroger on Columbia Road): “I’m not at that Kroger.”
The call abruptly ends there.
Later that evening, Dwight Johnson said Kay Allen called him and told him that he was not allowed in the tax commissioner’s office ever again and that he was to report to Kroger instead.
“I was planning on going to Kroger on Wednesday and I get another call on Tuesday night and she says, ‘Just come to work at 5:30 p.m. on Friday with your work shirts and anything else you have that this county owns,’” Johnson said. “And I pretty much knew what that meant at that time.”
Dwight Johnson was later fired from his position, but to this day he insists he was unjustly terminated.
“I didn’t have any ties with anything that was going on illegally,” Dwight Johnson told the Metro Spirit. “The accusations she has thrown out there against me are not true, so I’m fighting for my reputation.”
Not long after all of the allegations involving Kay Allen came to light, the Columbia County Board of Commissioners decided it was time to act.
In February 2014, Columbia County Commissioner Trey Allen requested attorneys representing the county to move forward with efforts to recover any monies that Kay Allen may have “wrongfully withheld.”
“This issue is a cloud over our county,” Trey Allen said in 2014. “I would just hope that the tax commissioner and all parties involved will do what is right and the people of this county can move on and remove this cloud.”
Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross agreed, adding that there has been a great deal of speculations and conversation regarding the allegations against Kay Allen.
“The time has long passed for a resolution in this matter,” Cross said in 2014. “It is the opinion of this body that Mrs. Allen’s actions have compromised her ability to effectively serve the citizens of the county. In the best interest of our citizens, the county has retained counsel to explore its options regarding filing an action against Tax Commissioner Allen to recover any money she may have wrongly withheld.”
By early March, Columbia County Board of Commissioners and attorneys for Kay Allen had struck a deal behind closed doors. Kay Allen, along with her husband Commissioner Charles Allen, both agreed to resign or “retire” from their positions effective immediately.
Along with their resignations, the Allens agreed to a settlement with the county that required Kay Allen to return half of the more than $160,000 in fees she collected from Harlem and Grovetown. In return, Kay Allen was allowed retire with her state benefits and retirement package intact.
Spotlight on Barry Smith
The huge scandal involving Kay Allen began to shed some light on some serious issues facing Columbia County as it continues to grow.
Last week’s sudden resignation of Barry Smith, director of the county’s Community & Leisure Services Division, again raised the question: How much pressure are some employees experiencing in Columbia County?
Just this past February, Smith’s own department made a few headlines after the county decided to require promoters to provide 20 all-access tickets to shows held in the Columbia County Exhibition Center.
Smith told commissioners the reason that his department was revising the rental contracts for the exhibition center was to be consistent with the Evans Towne Center Park’s rental agreement.
But speculation was that Smith received pressure from Chairman Ron Cross to implement the changes.
During a public meeting held earlier this year, Smith suggested that those renting the exhibition center for concerts should be required to provide the county 20 all-access tickets to the event for free to mirror the Evans Towne Center Park contract.
“We won’t have, ‘Why does this one have all-access tickets and this one doesn’t have tickets?’” Smith said. “We just decided to make them all exactly identical, so there won’t be any complaints on either side.”
When asked who will receive the 20 all-access passes, Smith insisted the free passes will be provided to necessary “staff” members.
“It is just the county’s policy to make sure we have staff there in case the power goes out or there are janitorial issues or whatever,” he said. “Our office will basically get the tickets when the contract is signed and whoever needs them, that’s how they will be distributed. It will be on an ‘as needed’ basis.”
When Smith was further questioned as to why county employees would need an all-access pass to a facility the county owns, he said these free tickets will only be provided to the county staff that need access to the facility to ensure a quality show.
“All-access means you can get into the event and go wherever you need to go to make sure everything is all right,” Smith said.
These questions where raised after some citizens were stunned by an email from Chairman Ron Cross sent to Royce Richardson of Triple R Concert Productions discussing free tickets to future shows at the exhibition center.
When Richardson learned of the all-access ticket proposal and heard rumors that Cross was upset that the county was not given free tickets to the Merle Haggard show, he immediately contacted Cross to offer the commissioner some tickets and verify if such changes were being considered.
The following is the Jan. 19 email response that Cross sent Richardson:
“Royce, the Commissioners have very little interest in the concerts. We do have prominent people in the community ask about tickets from time to time. Our interest is in being sure that all is going well and that the public is safe. I have not set [sic] through a whole concert, except the Augusta Symphony which we sponsor, since the park opened. I do like to welcome entertainers to Columbia County and talk a few minutes.
We are changing concert policy to assure that all venues are under the same rules and will change some ticket policies to allow some county staff to have all access passes for general supervision. When the committee finalizes these items we will send you a copy.
Thanks for the offer of the tickets but it is not necessary. Ron.”
The email caused a stir across the county because Cross said commissioners often have “prominent people in the community” ask about free tickets to the shows.
However, when Cross was asked about the county’s proposal to change the rental contract at the exhibition center earlier this year, he said he didn’t understand what all the fuss was about regarding the all-access tickets.
Cross insisted that “county people” would be using the all-access tickets.
“This just follows other people’s precedent about giving county people access to public property,” Cross said of the exhibition center. “They need to be there because it is county property.”
Cross said he felt that the concern over 20 all-access tickets at the exhibition center was short-sighted, especially compared to rental agreements at other larger venues in this area.
“County staff is required at the exhibition center during shows just like Global Spectrum, the private company managing the James Brown arena,” Cross said. “If you check with what Global Spectrum does down out at the James Brown Arena, they get a lot. So why is it an issue here?”
When a Metro Spirit reporter explained that some promoters are concerned that providing the county with 20 free tickets to every show will cut into their profits, Cross simply shook his head.
“The good promoters are not saying a thing,” Cross said, as he walked away.
About a month after the commission made changes to the Columbia County Exhibition Center’s contract, the county also revised its rental agreement for the Evans Towne Center Park.
While the county increased the rental fee for the entire Evans Towne Center Park from $7,500 to $10,000 for ticketed event, it also made changes in the park’s rental agreement regarding all-access passes and tickets.
During a public meeting, Smith said his department had researched the policies and procedures of similar facilities throughout the Southeast and found it is “not uncommon” for promoters to provide counties or cities with all-access passes and complimentary tickets.
Smith did not specifically identify any of the facilities in the Southeast that the county had contacted to use as a comparison.
“Some provide 50 comp tickets, some 20 or 30,” Smith said. “What we are proposing is 25 comp tickets.”
In addition to the 25 free tickets, Columbia County will have 25 all-access passes, issued by the county, that will include photo IDs of its staff and/or county officials for his or her use during an event at the park.
“The all-access passes are non-negotiable and are for the protection of the venue and the public,” the new rental agreement states.
Along with the 25 all-access passes issued by the county and the 25 complimentary tickets provided by the promoter, Smith said Columbia County has the “option to purchase up to 50 additional tickets at a 25 percent discount” from the promoter.
At the end of the April meeting, Smith also shared a report with commissioners regarding the Rental Facilities and Venues Department’s revenues for fiscal year 2014/2015.
“We are about 10 months into the fiscal year with two months left,” Smith said, adding the department oversees six different county facilities including the Savannah Rapids Pavilion (SRP), the SRP’s Park Picnic Pavilions and Millhouse, the Historic Augusta Canal Headgates buildings, the Jabez Sanford Hardin Performing Arts Center, the Eubank Blanchard Center and the Columbia County Exhibition Center.
“The number of events we’ve had is about 868 events to date,” Smith said. “And we have accommodated 178,000 people to date.”
With that many events and guests in the county’s facilities, Smith said it has been “quite a good year” regarding the revenue earned.
“It is $403,600 to date and we still have about two months left in the fiscal year,” Smith said. “The operational cost of the department is about $500,000, so we are doing quite well in reference to revenue.”
Just this fiscal year, the Columbia County Exhibition Center had already hosted more than 120 events, Smith said, including a number of roller derby bouts, gun shows, weddings, receptions, large fundraisers and proms.
“I think it is probably one of the better years we have had in the Rental Facilities Department,” Smith said.
Several commissioners praised Smith for his work in the department.
“It is wonderful to see these very impressive centers being used by so many of our citizens,” Columbia County Commissioner Bill Morris told Smith. “You and your staff are doing a wonderful job.”
Less than three months later, Smith resigned from his position without a word.
County Administrator Scott Johnson is also not providing any additional details regarding Smith’s abrupt resignation.
“Columbia County’s practice usually does not discuss details of employee resignations,” Johnson said in a statement to the Metro Spirit. “It is entirely up to the employee to disclose his or her reason for resignation.”