County wrong to pursue legal fees reimbursement

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It is absolutely essential that government business be conducted with the highest level of ethical responsibility. The appearance of impropriety can cause the citizenry to lose faith in their government.

Marilyn Watts has been removed from the Board of Elections. I have cited a number of issues related to Ms. Watts where I felt the trust in the elections process could be weakened. The Fayette County Republican Party sued to have Ms. Watts removed from the Board of Elections as their representative and it is my understanding that the Georgia Attorney General’s office is still in the midst of reviewing complaints on voting registration regarding her son.

Watts’ attorney managed to stretch out the court proceedings for around three years. With only a handful of days left on her term, the visiting judge let Ms. Watts go.

Unfortunately, a recent county commission decision to seek attorney fees from the petitioners regarding their attempt to remove Ms. Watts from the Board of Elections is a waste of taxpayer dollars and a chilling action toward anyone wanting to criticize the government officials.

Ms. Watts claimed the lawsuit was frivolous, but the court denied every request to dismiss it. I attended the court proceedings and watched the testimony of the witnesses.

Anyone can read the court record and I wish Commissioners Oddo and Barlow had done so before proceeding down a destructive path.

I believe Ms. Watts’ participation on the Board of Elections would be damaging to the effectiveness of the county’s election process. In September 2011, Ms. Watt’s son became embroiled in a voter registration controversy over a rental property he owned in Peachtree City.

Three people who lived in that home during that same period of time that Lane Watts claimed he lived there testified under oath that Lane Watts did not reside in the home. Likewise, another person living directly with Lane and Marilyn Watts in September signed an affidavit that he and Lane both changed their voter registrations to the Peachtree City address, but that neither of them ever moved there.

Lane Watts’ voter registration was legally challenged and Board of Elections Member Marilyn Watts had to recuse herself from her son’s case. Had Marilyn remained neutral and allowed the due process provisions of our laws to handle this challenge of her son’s voter registration, then nothing more would have happened, but the petitioners claim she did not.

Ms. Watts filed affidavits contradicting the Board of Elections decision to issue subpoenas that were to be used against her son. The superintendent had to file contrary affidavits against his own board member, who was his supervisor, disputing her sworn statements. Under oath, Ms. Watts couldn’t say who the lawyer was who prepared her affidavits. The petitioners contended Ms. Watts as board member and her son were using the same attorney.

Ms. Watts, as a Board of Elections member, and without the knowledge or authority from the Board of Elections, waived numerous legal defenses in motions that were filed by her own son, against her own Board of Elections.

Based on the petitioners’ claim, Marilyn Watts’ own attorney filed motions on behalf of her son, to prevent her own board’s subpoenas from being authorized without her fellow board members authorization or knowledge.

The other Board of Elections members testified Ms. Watts acted without their knowledge, authority or consent. In addition, Ms. Watts refused to honor her own Board of Elections subpoenas and she refused to voluntarily testify or to give any evidence regarding her son’s residence and registration case.

The claims that Ms. Watts went out of her way to thwart the investigation and tried to prevent justice to be served in her son’s case appeared to be backed up by the sworn testimony.

The fact that the visiting judge let her go with a handful of days remaining on her term does not make the Fayette Republican Party’s lawsuit frivolous.

The county government using its political and financial might and challenging for payment of legal fees from the petitioner sends a nasty message to local citizens that if you criticize elected officials or the staff on unlawful or unethical conduct issues, you may not be able to afford the consequences.

The only way to receive reimbursement of the legal fees is if the lawsuit was frivolous and it certainly appears that is not the case, so the county is wasting further tax dollars moving in that direction.

Steve Brown, Commissioner
Fayette County Board of Commissioners
Peachtree City, Ga.