Political maneuver kills hearing request

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FORSYTH COUNTY - The Board of Commissioners swept under the rug accusations against a local planning commissioner when it postponed a hearing request until January 2011.

Chairman Charles Laughinghouse made the motion to postpone Commissioner Patrick Bell’s request to consider a hearing to look into claims that Planning Commissioner Brant Meadows threatened the jobs of three county employees. Laughinghouse, who appointed Meadows, will leave the board when his term expires at the end of this year, and his successor will likely appoint his own Planning Commission representative to replace Meadows. The board’s decision to postpone Bell’s request effectively kills any chance for a hearing.

Bell said three different employees had their jobs threatened by Meadows, and all he wanted to do was get a hearing on the claims.

“Mr. Bell, we are not going to use this as a forum to crucify someone in order to protect someone else,” Laughinghouse said, referring to Jeff Chance, who was recently fired by the county from his position as director of Planning and Development. Meadows made complaints against Chance that related to his firing, and the board upheld that dismissal.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with Jeff [Chance],” Bell said later in the meeting.

Commissioners Jim Harrell and Jim Boff joined Laughinghouse in voting for the postponement.

“You guys want to keep it from being heard,” Bell said.

Laughinghouse could have chosen to allow Bell’s request for a hearing to be heard during the work session, and then trusted his fellow commissioners would vote it down. But with a postponement, the issue is avoided and commissioners can say they haven’t opposed a hearing.

Seeing his request for a hearing effectively defeated with the 3½-month postponement, Bell asked that Meadows not be allowed to function as a planning commissioner until a hearing can be held.

“I think that’s appropriate. Unless you want to sweep it under the rug,” Bell said.

Laughinghouse said he took great exception to those comments, which he said were made because the board’s action doesn’t suit Bell’s political agenda.

“We have been a most-transparent board,” Harrell said.

But Bell said he told Laughinghouse to look into the accusations even before the election -- in which Meadows lost his shot at a commission seat, placing third and not making it to the runoff election.

“Right after that, he threatened another employee,” Bell said.

Next, he told Laughinghouse he’d be bringing it up at a work session.

Laughinghouse said the issue was addressed with Meadows.

“A letter was written. He was instructed not to have any contact with other employees,” Laughinghouse said.

Meadows was told to direct his requests through senior staff.

“To the best of my knowledge, that has been fulfilled,” the chairman said.

Bell said they had reason to believe Meadows violated his oath of office and the bylaws of the Planning Commission.

“I’d like to have a hearing,” Bell said. “That’s what I said. This is not an issue that we need to sweep under the rug.”

But Laughinghouse responded that he didn’t think Meadows’ name was in jeopardy, “unless you are going to make an allegation.”

Laughinghouse said a planning commissioner can’t fire anybody, so there can’t be a threat.

“What authority does a planning commissioner have to threaten anybody? So therefore, he has not threatened anybody,” Laughinghouse concluded.

The written statements from employees don’t state their jobs were threatened, he said.

Cumming Forsyth