A Cherokee County grand jury has launched an investigation into several members of the county’s Board of Equalization after receiving a complaint about their service.
The investigation comes after five people on the 12-member board, which handles appeals from property assessments issued by the Cherokee County Board of Tax Assessors, filed a class action lawsuit against the county, demanding they release the complaint made against them.
An interim grand jury presentment was filed Nov. 14 announcing the investigation into board members Bill Dewrell, Donald Sams, J.E. White, Charles D. Heard, Jr. and Patricia Tanner.
The members have also been removed from hearing appeals to the board until the complaint is resolved, according to Clerk of Superior Court of Cherokee County Patty Baker.
Baker is the designated appeal administrator who oversees business conducted by the board.
After several requests for a copy of the complaint those named in the investigation claim the county refused, the five filed a lawsuit against Baker, the county and the Board of Tax Assessors Oct. 25 asking that it be released.
District Attorney Shannon Wallace said the grand jury will announce their findings in their presentments which are returned in open court and filed with the clerk at the end of their term.
A copy of the presentments will be sent to the legal organ of the county, the Cherokee Tribune, and the present grand jury’s term expires in the first half of January, she said.
A request for a copy of the complaint by the Cherokee Tribune was also denied.
“The matter is currently being investigated by the grand jury and thus the complaint isn’t public record and can’t be released at this time,” Wallace said. “Per OCGA 48-5-311, the clerk of Superior Court is the appeal administrator and is charged with the duty to ‘receive any complaint filed with respect to the official actions of any member of a county board of equalization regarding technical competency, compliance with state law and regulations or rude or unprofessional conduct or behavior toward any member of the public and to forward such complaint to the grand jury for investigation.’”
The members under investigation received a notice via email Oct. 19 that a complaint against them had been forwarded to Baker and their service on the board had been suspended, according to court documents.
“Out of an abundance of caution, it is in the best interest of the Board of Equalization that members with complaints pending not continue to hear active appeals,” the notice reads. “As such, until the pending complaint has been resolved, you will not be placed on the hearing schedule.”
Baker, who administered the notice and suspended the board members, is explicitly named in the lawsuit along with the county and Board of Tax Assessors. In the lawsuit, the members claim “there is an actual controversy between (them) and…Baker.”
“The complaint(s) is not a record that has been sealed by order of any court and defendant Baker’s refusal to provide plaintiffs with a copy of the complaint(s) violates every applicable Georgia law pertaining to public records, court records and records pertaining to local government,” the initial complaint in the lawsuit claims.
Based “on information and belief,” members predict the complaint against them alleges violations of their oaths of office, which is a felony.
The board members who have filed the suit asked the court to instruct the county to allocate $15,000 for the members to use in their legal defense of the complaint. They also requested the court issue a temporary restraining order and interlocutory injunction stopping all Board of Equalization meetings until the matter and the complaint is resolved.
In the lawsuit, the members demanded Baker justify her actions in withholding the complaint against them and suspending their service on the board, in addition to awarding them attorney fees and expenses of litigation against the county.
Dewrell emailed all members on the board Nov. 14 a resolution “requesting funds be allocated for representation of the board,” according to court documents.
“Please let me know by phone if you have any questions regarding this,” Dewrell wrote. “You can sign, scan and send in and we can gather into one document, if you wish.”
The resolution, if signed by a majority of the board members, would allow funds to “be allocated in order for the firm of Flint, Connolly & Walker, LLP to represent the interests of the Board of Equalization,” the document states.
Flint, Connolly & Walker is the firm representing the five members under investigation in their lawsuit against the county.
Lee Wyn, another board member, emailed a copy of the resolution to Baker the same day, indicating he disagreed with the resolution in a subsequent message.
“These guys are attempting to falsely include all of the board members in this mess,” he wrote. “He is falsely indicating to all recipients that a majority of us support him. This is not true as you know. They only have five supporters, and I feel most of them are being scammed.”
A response filed on behalf of the county Nov. 16 in the lawsuit denies the board members’ claims, stating their rights have not been hindered.
“Plaintiffs were not deprived of any constitutionally protected life, liberty or property interest without due process of law, nor did the county defendants violate plaintiff’s rights,” County Attorney Angela Davis stated in the response.