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WEDNESDAY, JUNE 13, 2007
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Lawrence boosts coroner's cell phone minutes
Officials say they had trouble getting their own budgets

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com 340-2443

MOULTON — The Lawrence County Commission agreed to restore the coroner's original cell-phone plan Monday after the county administrator cut it by 1,700 minutes in May.

The action was taken following a 11/2-hour executive session that may have been conducted in violation of state Sunshine Laws that spell out when officials can hold private meetings.

Coroner Micah Coffey, Sheriff Gene Mitchell and County Administrator Linda Harville attended portions of the executive session with the commissioners and County Attorney Cecil Caine.

When everyone returned, Caine told Coffey to start his request at the beginning.

Caine said the coroner's discussion should have been entirely public and was not the reason commissioners chose to meet behind closed doors. He said the executive session was held to "protect the good name and character of an employee." But Chairman Mose Jones said the discussion also included pending litigation.

Alabama Sunshine Laws require a "designated person" certify that a closed meeting is warranted. In the past, the county attorney has been the one to do this, but Caine said Tuesday the executive session had "caught (him) by surprise."

The law also states that the "good name and character" exception does not apply when discussing the job performance of a public official or managerial-level employee.

Following the meeting, Coffey told the commission that County Administrator Linda Harville had renegotiated his cell-phone contract to include only 300 minutes, which he said wasn't enough to conduct his duties.

No land line

The county doesn't provide a land line for the coroner because his job requires him to travel frequently within the county, said Coffey.

Harville said Coffey had originally told her 300 minutes would be plenty, but the coroner said he never agreed to the change.

The coroner's cell phone bill goes through the County Commission, but comes directly out of his budget, said Coffey.

Harville questioned Coffey about a recent $300 phone bill with repeated calls to some numbers.

Coffey said all calls on the coroner's cell phone were business-related, and reminded Harville and the commission that his office is a law enforcement office and the people he talks to "have a reasonable expectation of privacy."

Releasing the numbers to non-law enforcement personnel "could potentially be detrimental to the integrity of an investigation," he said.

The commission agreed to have all statements sent to Coffey. The coroner will copy the billing page and send it to the commission office each month.

Since Coffey took office last year, he hadn't seen a statement and only saw a copy of his budget Monday after a commissioner provided it for him, he said.

Coffey said he had been asking Harville for his budget for months, and was given only a summary.

Sheriff's budget

Sheriff Mitchell also had a difficult time getting his budget from Harville after he was elected last year. Harville told him for months that computer problems were keeping her from getting the budget, he said.

In a formal complaint given to the commission in January, Mitchell said, "Failing to receive this information has forced me to hire fewer officers than were employed by outgoing Sheriff Bryan Hill."

Mitchell said he did not receive the department's budget until Jan. 26, 10 days after taking office and more than two months after he had first requested it.

Financial strain

Failure to receive a copy of the coroner's budget also put financial strain on Coffey's office.

After reviewing his budget Monday, Coffey found that money was being used to pay for health insurance that he said he didn't need and had asked Harville to put that money back into his expense account. The funds spent on his insurance so far have amounted to $684.

Harville said Monday that the money could not be transferred to a fixed account, but agreed to transfer it to his travel expense account. Coffey said the current $600, allotted for travel, is not enough to cover the costs of traveling across the county for a full year.

The commission approved the transfer and increased Coffey's cell-phone minutes. It did not take any action against Harville.

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