Editorial: If we have to pay, tell us just what we're paying for

Marshal Greg Countryman, left, and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop sit with one of their attorneys in court earlier this year.
Marshal Greg Countryman, left, and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop sit with one of their attorneys in court earlier this year.

There's a lot about this seemingly endless legal wrangle between the Columbus Consolidated Government and four prominent officials of said government that, to most of us lay folk, makes little or no sense. Not much of the common kind, anyway.

First, there's the basic fact that public employees are suing the government that employs them because they aren't satisfied with their budgets.

Beyond that -- way beyond it, for most of us -- is the even more astonishing fact that the city is having to spend taxpayer money not just to defend itself, but also to pay legal costs for two of the officials whose suits it's defending itself against.

It's like a civic variation on Theater of the Absurd, except you couldn't make this up.

Now the judge who was hearing the cases, Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller, has recused himself due to family health issues -- a development which, in the eyes of the city's governing body and attorney, creates a new concern about official oversight of plaintiff legal costs, in this instance those of Sheriff John Darr.

That concern is one of the few things in all this that makes obvious sense.

Columbus Council, scheduled to vote on an ordinance to pay the latest installment of more than $73,000 to two of the sheriff's lawyers, heeded the advice of City Attorney Clifton Fay and amended the ordinance to stipulate that it was adopted "under protest," and that "any new trial judge [should] allow a neutral party such as a Special Master to review any invoices for legal fees or expenses incurred on behalf of Sheriff Darr."

This case is already bizarre (not to mention expensive) enough without the city being expected to fork over taxpayer money, no questions asked, just because plaintiff attorneys submit invoices for it.

Taking it to the Hill

The "private probation" industry has long been a problem in Georgia. It's been well documented that some of these businesses, to which supervision of probationers is contracted out, have in effect usurped court authority by prolonging sentences for non-payment of fines and fees.

Nobody has yet been willing, or at least able, to get a handle on the problem at state level, so U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., is raising the issue in Washington.

Calling the situation one of "modern day debtors' prisons for the poor," Johnson is one of the sponsors of legislation to require more transparency and oversight of those businesses whose fee and fine systems keep some poor probationers trapped in the system indefinitely.

Whether federal involvement in privatized criminal justice is the best solution is debatable. The need for reform of this grossly abused system isn't.