Judge rescinds sanctions suspension
Cities scramble to make sure they won't lose funds

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett and its cities are in danger again of losing millions in grants and stimulus funds because of a dispute over service delivery that has landed in court.

Shortly after the county and municipal leaders failed to reach an agreement on services by a Feb. 28 deadline, a judge ordered the state-imposed sanctions involved with losing qualified local government status in abeyance, while the sides met with a mediator.

But Judge Tom Davis rescinded his order late last week. Through a staffer, Davis declined to discuss the case, but Buford City Commissioner Phillip Beard said there was a question as to whether Davis, a Gwinnett Superior Court judge, could make the order. State law mandates a judge from outside the county be appointed to oversee mediation on the service delivery strategy.

Also late last week, Superior Court Judge David E. Barrett of the Enotah Judicial Circuit, which includes Towns, Union, Lumpkin and White counties, was appointed to the case.

Deputy County Administrator Mike Comer said attorneys have spoken to Barrett about the possible issuance of an abeyance order as well as the appointment of a mediator, but no judgment has been given.

In the meantime, Rep. Clay Cox has drafted a bill that would automatically extend a service delivery strategy for one year with no penalty for governments and making mediation automatic.

Cox said the idea won't be deliberated today, which is Crossover Day, the day House bills must be passed to be considered in the Senate this legislative session. But he said he could find another bill to attach his proposal as an amendment.

"The county and cities stand to lose a lot of money, so I'm trying to come up with a solution," Cox said.

Beard, who tried to negotiate for the county's 15 mayors as part of the Gwinnett Municipal Association, said he opposes the bill because it would withhold the teeth in the current law that forces officials to the negotiating table.

"(County officials) had two years. They knew the penalties. They knew the consequences," he said. "Now they are asking the state for a bailout."

Beard and Suwanee Mayor Dave Williams, the president of the municipal association, have said Gwinnett Chairman Charles Bannister would not agree to a two-month extension on the negotiations, instead seeking a yearlong one.

Cox said he was surprised by the cities' reaction.

"I'm just trying to create an option so the money is still available," he said.

Comer said he does not believe a year's negotiation would be needed, but he said he hoped the county and cities wouldn't lose the grants, permits and stimulus funds.

"It would be unfortunate for some substantial negative to be an outgrowth of this," he said. "I like the idea (of the bill), rather than dropping the ax on someone's neck that we go into a formal mediation process. ... We've got a lot of citizens involved here."