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Lumpkin County courthouse vote disputed

Commissioner’s son works for winning bidder

POSTED: November 7, 2007 5:05 a.m.
A Lumpkin County commissioner voted to award a contract for the construction of the county’s new $10 million courthouse to an Atlanta firm without disclosing that his son worked for the company.

Three of the four commissioners who voted Thursday on a contract that was awarded to Winter Construction Co. confirmed that Lumpkin County Commissioner John Raber has a son who is employed as a laborer with the company. Raber only disclosed the fact when he was asked after the vote by commissioner Deborah Hutcheson, who cast the lone dissenting vote.

"I did say to him, ‘Why have you not revealed that to us before?’" Hutcheson said Friday. "He said he forgot it."

Repeated efforts to reach Raber for comment Friday were unsuccessful. He did not return two messages left on his home phone.

Winter Construction was not the low bidder for the project, but was tabbed by a building committee made up of department heads and elected officials as the best fit for the job. Representatives of two other companies, Choate Construction and Turner Construction, were interviewed by the committee members as finalists for the job.

"They’re all great companies, but I felt after asking the questions that needed to be asked, that Winter was the best-qualified company to build our new courthouse," said Commissioner Clarence Stowers. "This is the company that a committee that does not include Commissioner Raber chose to build the courthouse."

Stowers, like Hutcheson and fellow commissioner Clarence Grindle, was unaware that Raber had a son working for the company when he cast his vote to approve the contract.

Stowers was hesitant to pass judgment on his fellow commissioner, but did note, "Robert’s Rules of Order states if there’s a conflict of interest, you’re supposed to abstain from voting. I know what I would have done in that situation."

Stowers, a builder of custom homes, said Raber asked him to abstain on a recent vote that would raise the fees for septic permits.

Hutcheson said she voted against awarding the contract, which passed by a 3-1 vote, because she heard "rumors" that Raber’s son worked for the company.

"I felt like I couldn’t support it if the rumor was so," Hutcheson said. "It’s just a very deep concern of mine. We should avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest in matters that involve the public trust."

Commissioner Clarence Grindle said he hadn’t formed an opinion about Raber’s vote yet.

Asked if he would have disclosed such a fact before the vote, Grindle said, "I think I would have if I thought of it, but I’m not accusing him of any wrongdoing."

All commissioners, including Hutcheson, agreed that Winter was likely the best firm for the project. They said Raber’s son, whose name they did not know, was apparently a day laborer and not a higher-up in the company.

"I still feel like he should have let us know in advance," Hutcheson said. "I could have supported (Winter), but I really feel he should have abstained from the vote."

The amount of the initial contract was a little more than $750,000, but that represents just a fraction of the total cost for the 50,000-square foot facility, which has been budgeted at around $10 million. The contract was negotiated down from $883,000, Lumpkin County Manager Stan Kelley said. Winter will oversee virtually all aspects of the project.

Construction of the new courthouse, which will be built with money from a penny sales tax approved by Lumpkin County voters last year, is slated to begin in June 2008.

The project has drawn considerable controversy over the location chosen by commissioners. More than 3,000 citizens signed a petition that opposed building the courthouse on the site of three recreational fields on Riley Road. Three new ball fields are being built to replace the old fields as part of the 150-acre Yahoola Creek Recreational Complex off Capt. McDonald Road on Ga. 52.

"It has been challenging," Hutcheson said of the project.

Echoed Stowers, who said careful evaluation led to the site choice, "It’s been a struggle."



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