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E-mails offer insight on rift
Official says decision was 'unfounded'
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Forsyth County News

In the aftermath of his unseating as Forsyth County commission chairman last week, Brian Tam accused fellow commissioner Patrick Bell of "badgering" the state attorney general.

It was a criticism that may have left many in the county wondering exactly what had transpired.

In four e-mails last October, which the Forsyth County News obtained from the attorney general through an open records request, Bell asked Sam Olens to reverse a finding from his office that commissioners had violated the open meetings act earlier that year.

Prompting the e-mails was a letter from Stefan Ritter, senior assistant attorney general, which contended county commissioners had done so in February 2011 by reportedly meeting in groups of twos with city officials to discuss a possible extension of the 1-cent sales tax.

The first e-mail from Bell, sent Oct. 6, states: "A simple letter of admonishment (if you feel appropriate) that also indicates there is no violation will serve us both; and more importantly, be accurate."

Olens responded to that e-mail on Oct. 9, affirming that he felt the decision by his office was correct.

Bell sent additional e-mails on Oct. 10, which he resent on Oct. 18, and a final one on Oct. 25.

In the last e-mail, Bell strongly indicated that pursuing the matter in court might be his next course of action.

"Should you elect to not address the egregious error by one of your staff attorneys, I’ll have no choice but to look to other avenues to clear my name," Bell wrote in the final e-mail.

The issue remains a touchy one with Bell, who said this week that he intends to have the attorney general’s office decision "corrected."

However, he added that he was asked "to stand down on that for a little bit and try to allow some dialogue with the [office.]"

He would not indicate who had made that request.

Bell maintains the decision regarding the complaint, filed in April by county resident Terry Sweeney, was unfounded.

"I’ve asked for the code. Show me the code where it says that two commissioners can’t go talk to anybody," Bell said. "Georgia code says a quorum cannot conduct business or take action."

Sweeney ran unsuccessfully for the District 5 post on the county commission in 2008.

In his complaint, Sweeney charged that Commissioners Pete Amos, Bell and Tam violated the act in February because they assembled a quorum without public notice.

The commissioners were at Cumming City Hall for what Bell has maintained were separate and informal discussions with Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt.

No official action was taken during any of the talks, which reportedly dealt with extending the 1-cent sales tax.

Voters ultimately approved a referendum on the issue Nov. 8.

Of the meetings, Bell has said he was entering the building as Amos and Tam were leaving and that Commissioner Todd Levent arrived about 20 minutes later.

In a letter in July to Forsyth County Attorney Ken Jarrard, Ritter asked the county to draft corrective measures.

According to the letter, it has been made clear that "to conduct public business in such a way as to avoid meeting the quorum requirements of the open meetings act is a violation of the act itself … Specifically, this office views four council members meeting, together or in twos, with a design team to conduct public business without giving proper notice to the public, to be a violation of the act."

Bell said he has heard from other officials that Olens has questioned the decision by Ritter, though Olens’ e-mail on Oct. 9 backs the ruling.

"Although I was not aware of the specific complaint letter at issue here or the response from this office prior to its being sent to the Forsyth County Attorney, the letter from Senior Assistant Attorney Ritter … accurately reflects my view … that it is inappropriate for county commissioners to meet in groups of less than a quorum for the express purpose of avoiding their obligations under the Open Meetings Act," Olens wrote.

Bell did not receive a response from Olens to his follow-up e-mails, but said he hopes discussion will continue on the issue, which he said has falsely impacted his reputation.

"At this point, it’s just in limbo. We’re trying to resolve it amicably. We’re trying to resolve it through discussions," Bell said.

"If it’s not resolved through that, I fully intend on taking it and filing an action in court and ask a judge to force the attorney general to make an appropriate decision based on Georgia code."