published Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Northwest Georgia officials dispute owing $24,000 in late fees


by Andy Johns
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Twenty-eight officials in five Northwest Georgia counties owe the state ethics commission nearly $24,000 in late fees for campaign paperwork, some of which have gone unpaid since 2003.

Mayors, council members, commissioners, school board members and even a coroner owe between $25 and $3,200 for late financial disclosures, according to data from the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

"That's sort of surprising that there's so many people in this area that had trouble getting in," said Chickamauga Councilman Daymon Garrett.

Based on data from the commission's website, school board members in Catoosa, Dade, Chattooga and Whitfield counties as well as Chickamauga owe late fees as do city council members in Chickamauga, LaFayette, Rossville, Lookout Mountain and Trenton. Two county commissioners in Catoosa and one in Whitfield are also past due as are the mayors of Dalton, LaFayette, Trenton and Summerville.

According to the commission, Garrett owes $1,375 for being three months late on a campaign contribution disclosure form due June 30. But he and other officials on the commission's overdue list say the fees are a result of computer glitches, mishandling of papers and poor management at the state office.

  • photo
    David Pennington, the mayor of Dalton, Ga., stands inside of the City Hall facility.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Dalton Mayor David Pennington said the commission is trying to fine him $1,375 for not filing a report when he wasn't even a candidate. The first round of reports was due in March, when Pennington was not planning to run for re-election this fall. When he changed his mind and decided to run over the summer, he said, the commission must have retroactively applied the late fee.

"I guess they can fine me for a misinterpretation," said Pennington, who mailed a letter of complaint after finding out about the fee in a phone interview Friday.

Kevin Abernethy, a board member on the ethics commission, said he could not comment on specific, pending action. He said the dollar amounts for the fees are set in legislation and the agency makes an effort to educate officials on the deadlines and requirements.

"They will get a notification if something is late," he said.

Abernethy said officials can always bring up concerns with the commission staff, and if necessary come before the board to explain their case.

But Summerville Mayor Harry Harvey said that can take longer than it should. Harvey has more late fees than anyone else in the region, owing $3,200 going back to last year, according to the commission's report.

Harvey said the commission sent him the wrong set of forms for his disclosures when he left the City Council and became mayor. He sent in the forms, but after "some confusion" and discussion with the commission staff, he sent in the correct forms. But the fees were apparently not erased.

"They were supposed to be clearing that up," he said. "I don't know of anything else I need to file or should have filed. I shouldn't have to pay those fines because it was a mistake on their part."

Harvey, Garrett and Chickamauga Councilman Randal Dalton say the fees are even more frustrating because they didn't get any contributions to disclose anyway.

Dalton, whom the commission said owes $1,375 for missing a filing in March, said he filed the report online this spring, but got an email from the commission on June 15 reminding him he was overdue. He said he had not missed a deadline in 18 years in office, but this year was the first time he had filed online.

After being told of the report Friday, he tried to file his documents again online but was hit with several error messages before it took him to a screen he had seen before indicating the report was in.

"How do I know if it's sent or hasn't?" he asked. "It seems like it would send you something saying it was sent."

He and Garrett, who also filed online, think there was a problem with the agency's digital interface that needs some work and that their fines need to be removed.

"Sounds like they don't have the kinks worked out in it yet," Dalton said.

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about Andy Johns...

Andy began working at the Times Free Press in July 2008 as a general assignment reporter before focusing on Northwest Georgia and Georgia politics in May of 2009. Before coming to the Times Free Press, Andy worked for the Anniston Star, the Rome News Tribune and the Campus Carrier at Berry College, where he graduated with a communications degree in 2006. He is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Tennessee ...

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