Fulton cuts deal on judges’ travel reimbursements

Fulton County and its judges cut a deal Tuesday on the judges’ travel reimbursements, after the judges backed off a threat to jail two Fulton administrators.

County Commission Chairman John Eaves, Superior Court Chief Judge Gail Tusan and other officials hashed out an agreement in a closed-door meeting Tuesday. Under the agreement, Fulton’s 30 elected Superior and State Court judges will follow the same rules as other county employees when it comes to getting paid to travel on public business, at least through the end of this year.

In the meantime, county officials agreed to review the reimbursement process to make it easier for the judges and other employees while still holding them accountable for verifying they’ve properly spent public money, Eaves said after the meeting.

The judges have said they don’t have to abide by the county’s policies for getting reimbursed. County officials have said they do. Tusan had threatened to jail County Manager Dwight Ferrell and Finance Director Patrick O’Connor as the dispute escalated.

After Tuesday’s meeting the county issued a statement saying the matter had been “resolved to the mutual satisfaction of both parties.”

Tuesday’s closed-door meeting involved Eaves, Ferrell, County Attorney David Ware and Deputy Finance Director Sharon Whitmore. The meeting at Tusan’s office took place instead of what was supposed to be a public court hearing on Tusan’s threat to hold Ferrell and O’Connor in contempt for failing to reimburse the judges.

In April, Tusan and Chief State Court Judge John Mather issued an order declaring the judges don’t need the county’s prior approval for travel expenditures. They said they’re willing to provide documentation for accounting purposes, but said they don’t have to submit all of the paperwork the county usually requires.

The judges cited legislation approved by the General Assembly last year that gave them greater authority to make line-item changes to their own budgets without seeking county approval. The legislation gave court administrators “oversight” of court budgets, but did not explicitly exempt them from following county procedures for travel reimbursements.

Fulton officials have insisted the judges have to complete the same paperwork as other employees. They’ve withheld reimbursement of some travel expenses until all the paperwork is submitted.

How much money is at stake was not immediately available. It could be thousands of dollars based on one example. The county did not reimburse Superior Court Judge Constance Russell for a trip to Amelia Island, Fla., for a State Bar of Georgia meeting that cost nearly $2,000. Russell submitted incomplete paperwork, and Fulton officials asked her to address the deficiencies.

Last month, Tusan threatened to hold Ferrell and O’Connor in contempt and to jail them if they didn’t pay the judges’ expenses within 10 days.

In court documents, Fulton attorneys argued the judges overstepped their authority by dictating how the county should process travel reimbursement requests. They also said a separate state law requires judges to abide by county travel policies. And they said contempt was an “extreme sanction” that was not warranted under the circumstances.

A hearing on the contempt issue was scheduled for Tuesday. But the hearing was canceled after the parties reached an agreement.

The dispute over judicial travel reimbursements is just the latest fallout from last year’s effort by the General Assembly to limit the power of Fulton County government. Lawmakers also passed a law prohibiting the county from raising its property tax rate until 2015.

Fulton officials say the tax cap constitutes an illegal meddling in local affairs. Last month county commissioners approved a 17 percent property tax increase, and within a day critics filed two lawsuits claiming the county violated the tax cap law. A hearing in those lawsuits is set for Sept. 18.

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