Forsyth County commissioners will not be getting a pay raise after a tense meeting on Thursday.
At the meeting, commissioners voted 3-0, with Chairman Todd Levent absent, to not go ahead with a proposed raise that would have increased the salary of commissioners to $48,000 and to $49,500 for the chairman.
District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills claimed residents who previously spoke in favor of increasing the pay were “coerced” by Levent, and she produced a text message conversation between Levent and a Forsyth County resident obtained through an open records request that appears to show Levent telling the man what to say on social media to support the pay raise proposal.
“It says [from the resident], ‘Can you help me on what to say to the board,’” Mills said. “The main thing that I wanted to point out is it said exactly what to say on Facebook. I think we made a really big deal about being transparent, and we want to be transparent.
“When we are asking a raise for ourselves, even more so then, we should want to be transparent to our citizens, and when we are play-acting with our citizens and we have people bringing in posters and lining up and we’re saying, ‘Everybody come in and tell them we want raises for our commissioners,’ that is such a farce. I mean, it stinks.”
The Forsyth County News received a copy of the open records request response from County Attorney Ken Jarrard to Mills that includes the texts, which were dated July 6 between 4:34 and 11:06 p.m.
In the text conversation, which took place during the meeting when the raise was last discussed, the resident asks Levent what to say to the board. Levent texts back, “You can post on Facebook, the commissioners are still in their meeting. Are you still at work?? They are and that is why I support a raise.”
The exchange also showed Levent, at 8:04 p.m., saying, “God help us, Mills won’t shut up,” after which the resident calls her an anti-gay slur.
Mills said she was receiving messages from the same person telling her to vote against the measure and that the previous meeting with people speaking in favor of the pay increase “raised a lot of suspicion.”
“We had signs that were placed all around the room that were saying our commissioners deserve a raise and people lined up. In fact, before this even was brought up at the work session, just coincidentally, people started lining up to saying how we commissioners deserved a raise,” she said. “I thought it was really odd and that even people that really dislike me, that usually line up to give speeches negative about me wanted to brag on my work ethic and how I deserve a raise and I worked so hard at the job.”
Levent is currently on vacation in several western states and could not call into the meeting.
Late Friday, he was able to speak with the FCN and fired back against Mills' comments, calling her “unstable.”
“She is nothing but, in my opinion, a liar and manipulates situations to suit her needs,” Levent said. “[He] text me and I messaged him back saying, 'About what?' He never messaged me back. She's just ad-libbing, making this up to what she wants it to be.
“That's who Cindy Mills is, she's constantly not telling the truth and twisting things up to make bold-faced lies to suit her needs.”
Levent said he was meeting up with the resident after the meeting comment and that the comment about Facebook was “all in fun” and in reference to the meeting taking longer than expected, which he said was due to Mills' staff at the evening's meeting.
He also called the use of the slur “nasty,” and said he couldn't help receiving it. He went on to say Mills was hard to work with for county staff.
Adding another layer to the drama was the vacant seat of former-District 2 Commissioner Rick Swope, who stepped down earlier this week to accept an executive position with E-Trade.
Prior to Thursday’s meeting, previous votes had been 3-2, with Levent, Swope and District 5 Commissioner Laura Semanson in favor and Mills and District 1 Commissioner Pete Amos against.
The argument in favor of increasing pay was that it would increase the pool of potential candidates and would allow people to run who would not otherwise be able to take the heavy workload and have a full-time job.
“I firmly believe that unless you pay a reasonable salary to commissioners, you're not going to get too many people to qualify to run for commissioner, they won't be able to because it takes up so much time of each week,” Levent said.
Opponents argued that being a commissioner is a part-time job and that it would increase expense to the county.
Levent said the increase was reasonable and had commission pay stayed in line with county cost of living increases, it would be about $46,000 per year.
“The part of it going up to $48,000 was not a huge salary,” he said. “It's still was about half of what the sheriff makes and one-third of what the judges make, and we look after a $120 million budget, plus about another $120 million when it comes to roads, bridges, water and sewer. So, you're close to a $250 million annual budget that we look after.”
Commissioners currently make about $38,000 per year, with the chairman’s salary slightly higher, and they can get a $1,200 stipend if certified by the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute. The salary of commissioners in the state can only be increased by commissioners voting to give themselves a raise.
Semanson expressed interest in having a study done to look at commission pay and keeping it in line with cost of living increases with the county.
“If you have the ability to participate [in a cost of living increase],” she said, “there would be very little argument for why you would need to come and raise your own salary.”