If there is even a slight whiff of a scandal, Augusta commissioners will have at least three news cameras and a half dozen reporters in their faces asking any and every question under the sun.
There are no kid gloves.
There are no comments like, “Now, don’t make me look bad,” or “Be nice to me.”
It’s straight up reporting and Augusta commissioners understand that answering the tough questions is all part of the job of an elected official.
Apparently, some Columbia County commissioners and county officials can’t quite understand that fact. They don’t get it.
When Metro Spirit reporter Stacey Eidson approached Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross and County Administrator Scott Johnson this week to discuss expenses involving a trip to New York City in June, she was not allowed to ask either of them any direct questions.
Instead, the county’s newly hired public relations manager, Calie Cook, was told to address theMetro Spirit’s questions.
Cook, who has been in her position less than two months, is a familiar face to some in Columbia County.
She and her husband are the hosts and creators of Columbia County’s Amateur Series (sort of like a local American Idol contest) that has been held at the Columbia County Amphitheater for the past several years.
Cook is also the former administrative coordinator for the Rental Facilities and Venues Department in Columbia County.
She’s young, attractive, talented and very enthusiastic, but now Cross and Johnson have decided to use her as a barrier between them and the media.
In response to the Metro Spirit’s questions regarding the New York trip that cost Columbia County taxpayers more than $10,000, Johnson sent a very direct message through Cook.
“After consideration of your request to interview Mr. Johnson, we have chosen to decline,” Cook wrote in a July 10 email. “Rather than simply giving you a brief answer, I will give you an explanation for our decision: Due to obvious preconceived notions in recent articles published in the Metro Spirit regarding Columbia County, it is in the county’s best interest to refrain from any interview that could be taken out of context to fill a story line. If this seems strongly put, we hope that previous articles thus far will help show why we feel this is the case.”
All right, let’s take a look at that statement: “Due to obvious preconceived notions in recent articles…”
A month ago, the Metro Spirit reported about a trip to Savannah in April that included Columbia County commissioners along with the county’s department directors and many of their spouses.
The purpose for the trip was a planning advance workshop with department heads, as well as training for commissioners at the 2015 Annual Conference of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.
The planning advance workshop was about three hours long, but the night before the meeting, the majority of commissioners, department heads and many of their spouses dined out at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
Columbia County taxpayers picked up the $3,571 dinner tab that night.
The total for just the lodging in Savannah amounted to about $10,000.
As a result, taxpayers spent almost $14,000 on that one trip to Savannah.
When the Metro Spirit received the county’s credit card information, it had questions about the trip and wrote a story about it.
Reporter Stacey Eidson reached out to each commissioner and Johnson for a comment, but because Johnson was on vacation that week and didn’t want to answer any questions over the phone, he couldn’t be interviewed for the story.
When the cover story on the Savannah trip was published, apparently Johnson and Cross didn’t appreciate it.
The Monday after the June story was published in the paper, Johnson ignored requests from the Metro Spirit for an interview.
And now all of the newspaper’s questions are to be addressed to Calie Cook.
For those Columbia County commissioners and county officials still willing to openly talk to the Metro Spirit, such as commissioners Bill Morris, Trey Allen and Mack Taylor, the newspaper truly appreciates your service to the community and your understanding that it’s the media’s job to ask tough questions.
But, as for Cross and Johnson, the Insider has one simple message: Grow up.
As Columbia County continues to develop and expand, there will be more questions about how money is spent and how things are managed because more people are moving into the area.
Columbia County isn’t a small, one-horse town anymore with just a local newspaper that is interested in publishing chamber events, wedding announcements and church bulletins.
The county will have big successes such as the thousands of residents moving to the area for Cyber Command, but it will also experience huge scandals like the controversial resignation of long-time Tax Commissioner Kay Allen and her husband, Commissioner Charles Allen, after she was accused of improperly profiting from contracts that collected taxes for Harlem and Grovetown.
There will be questions surrounding many disasters and tragedies throughout the county such as the devastating fire that tragically killed a 91-year-old woman at Marshall Square.
The public will need answers. The media, including the Metro Spirit, will demand them.
So, the question is: Do you really want to remain quiet and let a public relations manager address all of the public’s concerns?
If the answer is “yes,” you have a lot to learn about being real community leaders.