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Hard telling, not knowing
Jeff Whitten NEW
Jeff Whitten is managing editor of the Coastal Courier. - photo by File photo

My dad has a saying that used to drive me crazy when I’d ask him a question for which he didn’t have an answer.

"Hard telling, not knowing."

That’s kind of where we’re at for the moment with regard to the June 1 suspension of longtime Hinesville City Manager Billy Edwards.

In short, it’s hard to tell you what’s going on when we don’t know the answer.

We’re working to find out, for the very simple reason that the public has the right to know more than just what happened.

It has the right to know why it happened.

What’s more, the council has a duty to explain why it took this action.

You can’t suspend the top appointed official in the city and not give a reason why you’re doing so.

What did Mr. Edwards do?

That’s why the Courier has filed two open record requests with the city. We’ve asked for minutes and recordings of what we believe to be pertinent executive sessions.

We won’t get that because state law exempts it from disclosure, but I’ve always thought when it comes to such requests it rarely hurts to ask for more than you think you’ll get.

And, just to be safe, I’ve asked for a second opinion from respected press attorney David Hudson, who represents newspapers across the state in such matters.

We’ve also asked for documents concerning Edwards’ suspension, to include correspondence between Edwards’ attorney and the city’s attorney.

There’s a front page story today on what that correspondence said. It was sent to us Friday afternoon.

Other public records regarding the matter will be provided to us by June 16, which is fair and reasonable.

As an aside, we seem to have an awful lot of people who know what happened who aren’t directly involved in the situation. I consider that more or less "background." While it may (or may not) be accurate, it’s nothing to pin a story on, or use as the basis of a story.

Meanwhile, here’s what we do know.

Something certainly prompted three elected members of the Hinesville city council to vote to suspend Edwards, without pay, for two weeks.

That’s it.

And here’s what we think we might know.

Hinesville’s city charter, like many government documents, tends to be a bit ambiguous, and though there’s no section on suspensions, there is a section dealing with removing the city manager.

It reads:

"The Mayor and City Council may remove the City Manager for good cause at any time by a majority vote of its members. If requested, the Mayor and City Council shall grant him a public hearing within 30 days following notice of removal. During the interim, the Mayor and City Council may suspend the City Manager from duty, but shall continue his salary and, if the removal becomes final, shall pay his salary for one calendar month following the final removal date."

Obviously, the three council members who voted to suspend Edwards voted to make him step down without pay for two weeks. They didn’t can him.

They also obviously believe they followed the law. But what about that part about "shall continue his salary" while he’s suspended?

Does that apply if the suspension is only for two weeks and he’s not being "removed?"

I don’t know.

I do now know that Edwards has lawyered up in a big way. He’s being represented by one Hugh McNatt of Vidalia.

McNatt is accomplished, to put it mildly. He’s been a lawyer for 44 years and tends to represent big corporations facing class action lawsuits, wrongful death cases and so on.

From his website: "He specializes in representing electric utilities, trucking companies, automobile and aircraft manufacturers, and other corporate defendants in personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits. He also has extensive experience in condemnation matters and defending workers’ compensation claims for insurers and self-insurers."

And, this first-person quote, which is also from McNatt’s website:

"I have a true trial practice. While trying cases before a jury may be a dying art, I am a believer in the jury trial system. There is nothing I enjoy more that preparing and presenting my cases to jury."

I don’t know if that’s foreshadowing or not. I hope not. Seems we’ve all got better things to do than go to court over a two week suspension.

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