Hall County commissioners agreed Thursday to seek reimbursement of passport fees collected by the clerk of courts even though he is not legally required to pay them back.
Commissioners also agreed to place Emory Martin Jr., chairman of the tax assessors board, on a leave of absence starting May 2.
In a 4-0 vote, the commission requested Dwight Wood, clerk of superior court, to reimburse the county for 75 percent of the passport fees he has legally received since 1991. Commissioners asked that county finance officials meet with human resource officials to determine a "reasonable amount" that Wood be requested to pay.
County Attorney Bill Blalock said the clerk of court’s practice of retaining fees charged for processing passports is entirely consistent with state and federal law.
In 1991, Wood started processing passport applications and began legally collecting fees for the service he and other county employees provided. In 2007, Wood received $86,000 from passport acceptance fees in addition to making $122,000 as elected clerk of courts for state and superior courts.
Commissioner Billy Powell said he believes the law allowing the clerk of courts to legally collect passport processing fees should be changed, which would require action by the General Assembly.
The commission addressed the allegations within the tax assessors office by approving a motion 3-0 to place Martin on leave from his position as tax assessors chairman until the district attorney returns with the findings of his investigation.
Commissioner Bobby Banks abstained from the vote, and Commissioner Steve Gailey was absent from the board meeting.
Banks said he abstained from the vote because he believes the commission should ask Martin to resign.
"I think we should ask for Emory Martin’s resignation to preclude the county of any further embarrassment," Banks said.
In a letter addressed to Tom Oliver, Hall County Commission chairman, Martin stated that he agreed to leave his position with the tax assessors office until the district attorney returns with the findings of his investigation into allegations against Martin.
District Attorney Lee Darragh is currently investigating allegations against Martin of improper per diem payments totaling $66,100 during a nine-year period.
In February, retired county tax assessors office employees James Cantrell and Lyman Martin publicly accused tax assessors Emory Martin Jr., James Vaughan and Terrell Gaines of receiving per diem payments on days when the tax assessors board did not meet, including multiple holidays from 2002 to 2005.
Oliver said Emory Martin Jr. will receive no per diem pay during his leave of absence, but will maintain county health benefits provided under the tax assessors position.
"I think it’s fair at this time," Oliver said. He believes that until the district attorney proves otherwise, Martin should retain his health benefits.
In a letter dated April 10 addressed to Oliver, Emory Martin Jr. stated that he has been fully cooperative with the district attorney in providing all information requested by his office and will comply with the commission’s request that he take a leave of absence from his position as chairman.
"I am confident that the District Attorney’s investigation will ultimately fully vindicate me and the other members of the Board of Tax Assessors," Martin wrote in his letter to Oliver.
Cantrell and Lyman Martin hired attorney Ashley Bell as their legal representation in the matter.
"I think it was a good effort," Bell said of the commission’s action taken Thursday. "As a last resort, we’ll petition to the Superior Court for (Emory Martin, Jr.) to be removed."
The State Department of Revenue, rather than the Hall County Board of Commissioners, oversees the Hall County tax assessors board.
Oliver said Darragh intends to expedite the investigation, but did not give a time frame for its results.