The Hall County Board of Commissioners voted to settle a lawsuit with the city of Lula in last Thursday’s public board meeting, but county officials were initially reluctant to release the specifics.
The county has agreed to pay Lula $750,000 to complete the purchase of 100,000 gallons of wastewater capacity at Lula’s water reclamation facility.
The city of Lula filed a lawsuit in March, accusing the commissioners of not paying promised construction costs for a wastewater treatment facility. As part of the settlement agreement, if the county buys an additional 50,000 gallons of capacity, Lula will sell it at the market rate, not to exceed $14.50 per gallon.
Lula will also seek acknowledgement from the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority that the agreement complies with all loans from the agency and doesn’t violate its debt obligations with GEFA.
“The settlement is a good thing,” said former board Chairman Tom Oliver.
When The Times requested the settlement details from Hall County Attorney Bill Blalock on Thursday evening, he said to request the agreement from Commission Clerk Melissa McCain, who had a copy with her at the board meeting. McCain told The Times to email her an open records request because she was unable to make a copy of the agreement that night.
When The Times requested the agreement on Friday, McCain declined to release the document because it was not signed by Lula officials yet.
The settlement agreement was not a public document because the lawsuit hadn’t been dismissed yet, Blalock said Friday.
Brent Hatcher, an attorney representing Lula in the case, made a similar argument.
“It’s litigation and an exception to the Open Records Law,” Blalock said.
“I’m not aware of any provision in the law that something has to be signed before it’s released,” said Atlanta attorney Page Pate, founder of the Pate Law Firm. “In fact it’s a ridiculous position to take.”
Georgia’s Open Records Law was recently significantly revised to prevent situations like this, Pate said. Another Atlanta attorney, Peter C. Canfield of national law firm Dow Lohnes PLLC, said even if the document is a draft — if it’s approved — it’s an open record.
“If this were just a negotiation, they might have an argument,” Canfield said.
Hatcher emailed The Times a signed copy and an unsigned copy of the agreement shortly after 3:30 p.m. on Friday.
Hall County administration officials said Blalock’s comments speak for them, Public Information Director Katie Crumley said through email on Sunday.
Commissioner Scott Gibbs didn’t respond to a request for comment, and Lula Mayor Milton Turner declined to comment on the settlement on Sunday.
In the original complaint Lula officials filed in March, the city argued that in a 2006 interlocal agreement between the two governments, Lula agreed to “construct and maintain” a wastewater treatment facility that would serve both the city and a portion of unincorporated Hall County and that Hall County would pay part of the construction costs.
Total project costs were about $10 million, and the city received a $6 million federal subsidy and $2.6 million in low-interest loans.
Attorneys representing the county claimed that the federal grant money Lula received to help build the facility should be counted in the cost-sharing agreement.