Stephens Co. Postpones Decision on Buying Emergency Communications Equipment

Stephens County tables the purchase of emergency communications equipment pending the outcome of an investigation into a local businessman that is involved in the issue.

On Tuesday, Stephens County Commissioners unanimously voted to table the purchase of a recorder, phone system, radio console, and infrastructure upgrade for emergency communications in the county’s E-911 department.

Currently, Gunby Communications of Toccoa provides that equipment to the county.

However, the county says it notified Gunby in October that it had chosen not to auto-renew annual maintenance contracts currently in place with Gunby for these items totaling $49,908.

Stephens County Administrator Phyllis Ayers said it started in May 2013 with the decision to relieve the E-911/EMA Director at the time, Rex Nelms, of his duties and move the department in a different direction.

The county then hired Denny Folsom to serve as the county’s E-911/EMA Director and he started in August.

Ayers said the county instructed Folsom to look at all aspects of E-911 and EMA operations for possible improvements, including possible ways to save money.

“One item he brought to my attention is that our equipment was outdated and we could do something cheaper with the recording system,” said Ayers. “Due to the amount of this contract, there was no need for a formal sealed bid according to our purchasing policy and this was placed on the agenda for September 24, 2013.”

Ayers then alleged that prior to the September 24 Stephens County Commission meeting, Gunby Communications Owner John Smith listened to and recorded five different conversations on Folsom’s administrative line on his desk in his office.

According to Ayers, Smith then played the recordings for a commissioner in what she called an effort for the county not to change the current contract that was in place with Gunby and the item was postponed in September.

Ayers said the county commissioner then notified the county attorney of the recordings, who discussed them with Ayers and the entire commission.

“Because Mr. Smith had threatened litigation against the county and because the use of the recordings could give rise to litigation by the county, we then brought that information forward in executive session to the Stephens County Board of Commissioners and the decision was made to turn this information over to the District Attorney’s office and a GBI investigation was opened and is still currently going to determine if charges will be brought against Mr. Smith,” said Ayers.

Ayers said after notifying Gunby that the county would not renew its current annual maintenance contracts, the matter was put out for sealed bidding, but Gunby was the only vendor to bid.

According to Ayers, that is because Gunby is the only company that can maintain the county’s current equipment.

Ayers then said she talked to more than 10 counties in the region and determined with staff that the county’s best option was to completely upgrade the equipment.

“During these conversations (with other counties), I learned numerous things, one being that our equipment was outdated and no vendor in the field other than Gunby Communications can maintain the (current) equipment,” said Ayers.

Ayers said bids were opened on March 14 and that is what was before commissioners Tuesday.

However, County Commissioner Dennis Bell said he does not feel the county should make any decisions while an investigation is underway and suggested postponing the decision.

“At this time, I will not and can not vote on anything that has an open investigation on it,” said Bell.

Commissioners voted unanimously to postpone any decision.

For his part, Smith said he took issue with some of what was alleged.

“I have never threatened litigation over this, so that is a misleading statement, not over these recordings,” said Smith.

He did not comment further after the meeting on the allegations surrounding the recording of the phone calls or any investigation.