Spring is the time for baseball season. But in Columbia County, it also must be the season for hibernating courts to thaw out and reach some decisions.
Within a few weeks of each other, three lawsuits against Columbia County are seeing action after long winters of silence:
The U.S. Supreme Court recently rejected an appeal from Elaine Matthews, the countys former clerk, who sued after she was fired nearly 10 years ago on a 3-1 vote by the County Commission.
Matthews charged that she was fired by commissioners - led by former Chairman Richard Reynolds, and including current Commissioner Diane Ford - angry that Matthews had spoken out against a shady landfill deal.
Three years ago a jury agreed with Matthews; the county appealed, getting the decision thrown out. Now that the Supreme Court has refused to hear the case, the sad saga is expected to end.
Theoretically, the county won; taxpayers didnt have to pay anything to Matthews. But heres the reality: lawyers made a lot of money from this case, most of it coming from county taxpayers and Matthews.
Matthews was fired for dubious, vindictive reasons. But the courts let commissioners off the hook with technicalities, and Matthews, a good, 17-year employee of Columbia County, doesnt even get an apology.
Another case possibly closing soon involves an infamous billboard on Washington Road. Pudge Roberts sued after commissioners rejected his request for special permission to use a billboard that hed built too close to the highway.
The case has dragged through court for nearly two years. But Roberts has now sold the billboard, and the new owner dismantled it and moved the sign a short distance down the railroad tracks - and far enough from Washington Road. Since theres no longer anything to argue about, commissioners expect the suit to be dropped.
Theres still plenty to argue about in the stormwater utility fee lawsuit.
The suit was filed by four county residents in 2001. Judge Dudley Bowen recently decided the case doesnt belong in his federal court, so the case is back where it started in superior court.
The suit hasnt cost the four Columbia County residents who filed it a dime, because their attorney is working on a contingency basis. But county taxpayers are continuing to pay to defend the stormwater utility.
If the county loses, not only will taxpayers be on the hook for all the countys attorney fees, they likely will have to pay for the attorney for the folks who sued. Then the county will have to reimburse the nearly $3 million collected by the stormwater utility, and taxpayers will probably get hit again with higher taxes to pay for storm-water improvements that the fee would no longer exist to fund.
And what if the county wins? Those who filed the suit lose nothing - but taxpayers, including the plaintiffs, will still have to pay attorneys fees.
With all this springtime action taking place, its easy to see how Columbia Countys budget includes nearly $325,000 for attorneys fees this fiscal year.
Lets put all this in perspective:
While hundreds of thousands of dollars are thrown around in court like someone elses money, Columbia Countys Recreation Advisory Board is trying to get approval to charge an additional $5 from sports participants so it wont have to keep hitting parents up in fundraisers to help pay for kids recreation programs.
The fee would generate about $36,000 a year - or just a little more than the county spends on lawyers in one month.
We should update that old anti-war slogan: Wouldnt it be nice if the rec department had all the money it needed, and lawyers had to hold a bake sale to buy tasseled loafers?
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to bpaschal@ newstimesonline.com, or call 863-6165, extension 106.)
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.