Meridian Star

July 2, 2013

Board attorney responds to criticism

By Terri Ferguson Smith /
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     Unhappiness among some county residents over a recently passed $14 million bond issue has led one resident to call for the removal of the attorney for the county Board of Supervisors, but the request didn't go unanswered as the attorney who has held the job for 21 years fired back.

    The bond issue to fund recreation projects and the beginning of courthouse renovations prompted a failed petition drive. Board attorney Rick Barry and the supervisors who supported the bond issue have taken some criticism over the matter.

    On Monday, Marion resident Tommy Williams, who has previously spoken out against the bond issue, leveled more criticism against Barry.

    "Based on my analysis of the political situation in the county and the city, I have concluded that Mr. Rick Barry needs to be replaced. To my knowledge, he has never had to face an election. In that situation it would be very difficult for most anyone not to grow some feeling of entitlement," Williams said. "A certain amount of entitlement can be expected for one in such a lofty position of power as in the county attorney's position when allowed to go on for so long. It's called the arrogance of power. I respectfully submit to you members of the board that Mr. Barry's arrogance of power has been demonstrated to everyone paying attention to see on four specific occasions in the three months since the weekend before April 1 this year."

    Williams then proceeded to list those incidents, each of which were later countered by Barry.

    "This man slandered me in public and I think I have a right to respond to that," Barry said.

    Williams first said that Barry had conspired with District 1 Supervisor Hank Florey, board president; District 3 Supervisor Josh Todd; and District 4 Supervisor Joe Norwood to call for a vote on the $14 million bond issue on April 1.

    Those are the supervisors who voted in favor of the bond issue; District 2 Supervisor Wayman Newell and District 5 Supervisor Kyle Rutledge voted against it.

    Williams said that the matter had not been discussed in a work session, and that Newell and Rutledge did not know it was going to be on the agenda for that meeting.

    "This was also done with no discussion in any forum open to the public," Williams said.

    Barry disagreed.

    "I can tell you, on this bond issue, I have tried to tell this gentleman when I called him on the telephone after the first letter to the editor he wrote in which my name was used: I didn't do anything in secret with anyone," Barry said. "I think you members of this board in discussing this bond issue, you may have discussed with the bond consultant, all of you talked to the bond consultant on this work session which I believe was March 28. Mr. Florey, the president of the board, stated at the first of the meeting, 'We're going to talk about the sports complex. We're going to do it at the end of the meeting.' We had our work session on that Thursday and at the end of the meeting no one talked about the sports complex."

    It was after that work session that the bond issue was placed on the agenda for the next meeting, but all of the board members were notified, he said.

    "I got a call from Mr. McCraney either Thursday or Friday and he said, Mr. Florey, as president of the board, wanted to put the bond resolution on the agenda for Monday, the first (April 1). I don't prepare the bond resolution. I'm not the bond attorney for the board, that's Butler Snow, they've been doing that for a long time," Barry said. "They prepared the bond resolution and sent it over here so we could get it on the agenda for the first. I understood that Mr. McCraney had talked to or made communications with all members of the board indicating that Mr. Florey wanted the bond resolution on the agenda for Monday, April 1."

    There was no attempt to deceive anyone, he said.

    "First of all, I don't aid and abed or act in conspiracy with anybody. I advise the board. From my knowledge and information, everyone knew what was coming up on the first (April 1). That resolution was presented, it was passed on 3-2 votes. We have a lot of things that pass on 3-2 votes; sometimes they fail on 3-2 votes. There have been numerous times, I think that's the board's representation of how they view certain issues."

    Secondly, Williams said Barry tried to intimidate people who had signed petitions calling for a county-wide vote on the bond issue, referring to Barry's recommendation to the Board of Supervisors  to put the petition and all the signatures on the county website for two weeks.

    "Those citizens were petitioning about the matter of a $14 million bond issue be addressed by the voters of the county instead of being rammed through by the gang of four who had conspired to do so. The intimidation used was to post petitioners' names on the internet under the guise of allowing those who had signed in error for one reason or another, to take their names off."

    That allowed people to take their names off the petitions, he said.

    Barry said there was nothing wrong with putting the petitions and signatures online.

    "The bond resolution went out, there were petitions filed. I think that if the board had known when the actual petitions came in, that there were only 1,551, we probably would have taken, maybe different action but the board chose not only to review them but to make sure on the internet, that people saw them," Barry said. "I don't know why you'd object to the internet. Aren't all our tax rolls, with the values of our property, all on the internet? I don't know what's secret about that. The whole determination was, the bond petitions go to the Circuit Clerk for verification. Then the board members have to ultimately decide the legal justification of those particular petitions."

    The next issue Williams had with Barry was his advice to the board not to accept or count any new signatures on the petition after the deadline had passed, even though others were being allowed to remove their names during the two-week period.

    Although initially the petitioners had enough signatures to call for a vote — at least 1,500 — numerous names were thrown out because they were either duplicate names, illegible on the petitions, signed by a spouse, or were signatures of people who were not registered voters. There were 1,554 names collected, but only 1,338 were verified. Nineteen people signed affidavits asking that their names be removed from the petition.

    Williams said if the county had accepted the additional 340 signatures that were added, it would have passed.

    "It was not the law that said that they could not accept them," Williams said.

    Barry said the law is clear about accepting petitions after the deadline.

    "The other matters, as far as, what was the law," Barry said. "The law is the law. I can't change that by Supreme Court or by numerous AG opinions that were written and say, you have a date set for objections after that day, you can't add any. That law is clear, reinforced by our bond counsel.  That's the law."

     And finally, Williams complained that Barry, at a recent board meeting, had tried to intimidate another opponent of the bond issue, James Harwell, who last month told the board of his intent to file an  appeal. At the June 16 meeting, Barry asked Harwell if he had an attorney to handle the appeal and Harwell said it wasn't necessary at that time. Then Barry cautioned Harwell about the possible consequences of a lawsuit. One of the reasons for getting the bond issue now is that there are low interest rates, Barry said. It is not known how long those rates will last. If a lawsuit held things up and interest rates rose before the deal is in place, the person objecting to the bond issue could be held responsible for the difference in the higher payment. He advised Harwell to get legal counsel.

    Barry said he had no intention of intimidating Harwell at the previous meeting.

    "What I was trying to do was to advise him that he needed to seek legal counsel," Barry said. "In fact, an attorney saying he was representing him, came to my office last week, sat down and talked to me. I said the exact same words to him that I said to Mr. Harwell. 'If you file an objection and this bond issue — and there is an issue about interest rates that go up — you're going to have to look at paying the difference in the interest rate if that happens. I wasn't trying to intimidate anybody."