County mayoral candidate Otis Jackson, who is now serving as General Sessions Court clerk, got a scare last week, but one which, ironically, resulted in his getting a pass this week.
Commissioner Mike Ritz, something of a self-appointed fiscal watchdog on the county legislative body, pressed a relentless interrogation of Jackson last week, on the basis that the latest county audit had revealed the clerk’s books to have been seriously “unreconciled.” That word, and its variants, got a strenuous workout during a committee hearing which revealed mismatching account entries dating back several years.
In the end, it was decided that several of the problems were attributable to a dysfunctional computer system installed under the previous clerk, Chris Turner, who was defeated by Jackson in 2008. But the most serious shortcoming involved a matter of some $3 million directly traceable to Jackson’s administration that remained (that word again) “unreconciled.”
Jackson was not under suspicion of malfeasance, but, still, the discrepancy in his books, coupled with Ritz’s previous accusations that the clerk had spent prodigally on dining occasions for his staffers, threatened to put his mayoral campaign (already of the dark-horse variety) in crisis mode.
Two things occurred to, er, reconcile Jackson’s situation. One, he was able to submit a supplemental report adjuged by the county auditing team to have properly resolved the discrepancies. Two, in the meantime interim county commissioner John Pellicciotti, who was appointed last year to fill a vacancy in District 4, Position 3, levied a motion to censure three clerks — Jackson, Chancery Court clerk Dewun Settle, and Probate Court clerk Chris Thomas — for what county audits and “management letters” had revealed to be persistent problems in reconciling their books.
Inasmuch as Thomas is now a candidate for the commission’s District 4, Position 1 seat — the same seat being sought by Pellicciotti, who is switching tracks because he had promised, upon his appointment, now to seek reelection for the Position 3 seat — his colleagues were sufficiently diffident as not to offer him a second.
But his motion, with all its potential political volatility, returned to the full commission’s regular public meeting, and, when Commissioner J.W. Gibson, who hadn’t been at last week’s committee hearing, seconded the motion, Pellicciotti was given a platform to make his point against Thomas. Clerk Settle had meanwhile been excused from blame, and Jackson, too, having already undergone his ordeal, was now off the hook — at the behest of Ritz, no less, who, perhaps seeing a dilemma that cut both ways, partisan-wise, professed a desire to “get [it] behind us and move on.”
Thomas, speaking to the commission in his defense, offered an apology “that my opponent is doing this to y’all” and observed that, as several commissioners already had, “this is political.” He pointed out that he had corrected the indicated fault — a failure to resolve his ledger precisely on a monthly, as against an annual, basis — and lamented, “This is exactly why…y’all don’t want to appoint someone to fill out a term that says they are not going to run, and then they run.”
(He would pass out copies of his own charge — that Pellicciotti should return the money, some $110 month in county funds, that paid for the interim commissioner’s recent public hearings on consolidation, on grounds that Pellicciotti had used the occasions for his own campaigning, something Pellicciotti would staunchly deny.)
In the end, votes were held on the Jackson and Thomas matters. Jackson was exonerated by a 13-0 vote, with Pellicciotti himself concurring, and Thomas, too, saw his censure charge defeated. That one went 12-0, with Pellicciotti recusing himself.
On the surface, then, it appeared that Thomas was victorious, but Pellicciotti, who probably entered the race as an underdog, got a bully pulpit to display himself as a self-declared and single-handed reformer. Speaking to reporters later one, he would condemn an “old boys’ network” that “the people who have been there too long are tied into.”
He went on, “Nobody is willing to call each other out. We have got to hold these people responsible…We [meaning himself] will continue to hold people accountable. We will not put up with people not managing the people’s money appropriately. We are past the time of just ‘trusting’ politicians.”
And, finally: “We’ve got to get rid of these guys who are been in office forever.” [Thomas had boasted his 16 prior years of service as clerk.] “We need young people who can tell us that’s not right.”