At Issue: Does Fayette County need a “religious liberty” proclamation?

State Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, made a presentation to the Fayette County Board of Commissioners before the board voted to approve a “religious liberty” resolution. Jill Howard Church for the AJC
State Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, made a presentation to the Fayette County Board of Commissioners before the board voted to approve a “religious liberty” resolution. Jill Howard Church for the AJC

Unlike the Georgia legislature, where Senate Bill 233 currently lingers in committee, Fayette County has already approved a “religious liberty” resolution that states, “Federal, State and local governments should not infringe on the ability of citizens to act in accordance with their religious beliefs.” Supporters say it protects constitutional rights but opponents say it threatens them.

At its Jan. 11 meeting, the Fayette County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to adopt language first presented in the U.S. Congress in 2015, titled “Protecting Religious Freedom in America” (House Resolution 514). Fayette’s resolution aims to “signify its dedication to the protection of religious freedom in Fayette County and in the State of Georgia,” including support of SB 233. Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, who sponsored the state bill, addressed the Fayette meeting and showed a video touting the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires a “compelling governmental interest” before anyone’s free exercise of religion can be “substantially burdened.”

Last year, Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a “religious liberty” bill at the urging of business leaders and civil liberties groups. Although SB 233 has a more narrow focus, opponents of it and the Fayette resolution are concerned that any such law could be invoked to allow individuals or businesses to discriminate against gay people or members of religious minorities. That prospect worries some who are trying to cultivate more business opportunities in Fayette County to build upon the hugely successful film industry, and to attract more young professionals to the area.

So tell us, does Fayette County need “religious liberty” measures beyond the First Amendment, or does such language put the county in an unfavorable light? Send comments to communitynews@ajc.com by Feb. 6 and we’ll share them in print or online. Comments may be edited for length.

Several weeks after Clai Brown resigned as Avondale Estates city manager — which he ultimately rescinded on Jan. 11 — the details of his unusual severance package came to light. Brown would get paid for 12 months after leaving, a total that came to $317,408.17, or about 9 percent of the city’s projected 2018 budget. The most mysterious feature is that the severance would pay out if Brown resigned for any reason, something that’s essentially unheard of.

This raised a number of questions, especially since no one on the present commission seems to have known about the severance. Who authored this sweet deal, how did it escape commission scrutiny and, apparently, scrutiny from city attorneys.

The commission has now said it will not honor the severance, although this resolution hasn’t yet been officially approved. The commission is citing a state law that essentially says the actions of a previous commission who approved the severance (in 2015) can’t “bind” a future commission. This would include matters of both the enactment of ordinances the execution of government contracts. But this also raises the specter that potentially any agreement with any government employee can be cancelled at any time.

Currently, employment contracts for local government employees no matter how high-ranking don’t garner a lot of discussion or public scrutiny. We asked readers if that should change.

Here’s what some of you had to say:

The residents of Avondale Estates have a right to transparency on the compensation agreement of their city manager. In fact the situation described in this article is problematic on many fronts.

Compensation guidelines for chief appointed officers developed by ICMA, the International City/County Management Association, are driven by the ICMA Code of Ethics and are intended to maintain public trust and integrity in local government.

In addition to public disclosure of the manager’s agreement, a key element of the guidelines is ensuring that the agreement and amendments are disclosed to relevant elected officials; that did not appear to happen in Avondale Estates. Finally, the guidelines specify that severance should be reasonable and affordable—it’s clear that the $317,000 severance does not meet the affordability standard.

Though Avondale Estates City Manager Clai Brown is not a member of ICMA, his position as a public servant demands the highest standards of ethical behavior and full transparency. It's what the residents of Avondale Estates and every community deserve. — Marc Ott, executive director of the International City/County Management Association

ALL information created in the process of doing the business of government should always be open for public scrutiny. The government belongs to the tax-payers. Sunshine should shine brightly everywhere in government. It's ALL public business! — Donald Varn, Roswell

BILL BANKS FOR THE AJC

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