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Renee Godwin

The results of more digging on the spending and the use of staff and resources by Douglas County Coroner Renee Godwin came into question Monday during the work session of the Board of Commissioners.

Douglas County Commission Chairman Romona Jackson Jones prepared a presentation for Monday's meeting, saying it was "her fiduciary responsibility to separate emotions from responsibilities."

"Leaders don't react — they research," Jones said.

The Douglas County District Attorney's Office confirmed to the Sentinel last month it is investigating Godwin's office after concerns were brought to them about how the office is operating.

Attention to Godwin was first raised in early 2017, shortly after she took office, when she came to the BOC asking for an 81 percent pay increase along with multiple budget and staff increases. At the end of 2017, the board had to amend its 2017 budget to cover an $80,000 overage expended by the Douglas County Coroner’s Office with contingency funds.

Her 2018 budget was increased by the BOC to $195,000, which at the time was deemed justified because neither the BOC nor the coroner's office had any indication of how much money would be required to fund the office.

County Financial Analyst Michelle Green said in late 2017 that because of the change in coroners in the 2016 election, an actual budget had not been submitted and she was basing the 2017 budget on trends from 2015 and 2016.

On May 14, the county's Finance Committee reported that Godwin's budget is slightly over target at 1.72 percent. This is down from the previous month's variance of 3.10 percent. According to County Finance Director Jennifer Hallman, Godwin has expended 61 percent of her budget remaining to operate through Dec. 31.

But, Hallman — when asked by District 2 Commissioner Kelly Robinson if any other departments in the county had ever exceeded their budget — answered yes.

A number of comparisons were made between Godwin's and former Coroner Randy Daniel's "practices" by both the chairman and Robinson in Godwin's defense.

Daniel, a Republican, lost his bid for reelection to Godwin, a Democrat, in 2016.

Jones said that one of the reasons for increased expenditures was because Godwin paid her deputies $175 per investigation aligned with state law, whereas the previous coroner paid only $100, which was less than the required law, established in 2007 demanded.

The chairman pointed out that contracts with Mike Axley Transport, Georgia Decor and Georgia Floors and More under Daniel's tenure as coroner did not come before the BOC for approval, whereas part-time agreements with current deputy coroners Wayne Rogers and Mike Axley were made and entered into by the BOC.

However, this was done after Godwin had already made new hires without the prior BOC's consent.

According to Jones, there was no record of training for former deputy coroner Mark Alcarez nor any record Alcarez had been legally sworn in by a judge. She also alleged that contracts from some former deputy coroners were never approved by the Board of Commissioners. 

"All third party contracts must be approved by the board," said Jones. "When you are conducting an investigation, actually touching deceased patients and taking their photographs, you have to be credentialed and trained. I've been in the health care industry for over 40 years and know health care. My deputies have to have licensing and certification to touch these patients and be astute in making decisions on signing off."

She said, "I know Georgia Floors and More did not sign off on a death investigation and has no record of being sworn in by a judge."

District 4 Commissioner Ann Jones Guider told Jones the deputy under the previous coroner, listed as Axley Transport and operating under Georgia Floors and More is Mike Axley, a current deputy coroner under Godwin.

In addition to three part-time deputy coroners, Larry Bussey was hired as the coroner's part-time administrative assistant.

The number of investigations the coroner herself handled and misuse of county vehicles was also addressed.

Jones agreed that coroners should sign off on investigations, particularly if they are on the scene, rather than paying $175 to a deputy. She said, "Being that Renee Godwin has a part-time salaried position, you and I know it is impossible for her to conduct all of the death investigations in the county because death occurs around a full-time clock."

The chairman said that the number of death investigations by the coroner has no budgetary impact because no invoices are submitted and "there is no way the check how many death investigations were conducted by the coroner."

Jones said, "More deaths in 2017 than 2016 is not a logical answer."

Guider disagreed with Jones.

"You are wrong, Ms. Chairman. The death certificate tells you who pronounced the death, and according to the Probate Office, Renee Godwin has not pronounced a death in six to eight months."

Guider raised questions about the fact that Godwin drove a county vehicle to a full-time job in the city of Hapeville and said she had checked with the county fleet to find out how many miles she'd put on the car.

"On March 9, she has put over 1,000 miles on the county car," said Guider. "Fleet tickets will tell you about her."

Guider alleged the the coroner's administrative assistant has not been sworn in, according to Probate Judge Hal Hamrick, and is driving a county vehicle home in another county and wearing a badge. Guider said that according to a report by the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, Godwin had shown up for four or five death scenes, yet did not do the reports.

"She should not be using county vehicles for her personal use," said Guider. "I want to know where she was on March 9, because she was not at training. Records from the county fleet and the probate office shows abuse abuse of county vehicle use."

District 2 Commissioner Kelly Robinson questioned whether the discussion was necessary for the BOC meeting.

"Did the county really need to go here," he said. "Is this necessary for the county?"

"Who sat down with her and told her what the automobile policy is and what were her options," Robinson added. "What I see is you can do what you want as an elected official."

Robinson compared Godwin's use of deputies to that of the sheriff going out and making arrests or letting his deputies do it. He also questioned the reasoning of doing the coroner's job the same way it has been done "for 50 years."

He said, "Why would we make this status quo? This notion of whether she picks up bodies or not — or she can use her deputies. …She can run it her way or outsource it. She was hired to make these decisions and do what she thinks is right."

Godwin, who attended the work session Monday, prepared her own presentation, citing the purpose of a coroner under Title 45 of the Georgia Death Investigation Act. She said coroners and deputy coroners are part-time jobs and they can — and oftentimes do — have full time jobs. She said the job doesn't have regular hours, as death is unpredictable, and she can do administrative work anytime.

In her presentation, Godwin said Title 45 authorizes her to write her own standard operating procedures, hire as many deputy coroners as she sees fit, delegate any and all responsibilities to deputy coroners. She said she could oversee any investigation of a decedent whose case originated inside the county even if it becomes outside the county.

She accounted for a trip to Las Vegas in order to get her office nationally certified. If this occurred, it would make Douglas County the only coroner's office in the state to do so.

Guider said in 2017, she wrote a letter to Godwin inquiring about how the office was being run. That resulted in an internal audit, which called to question why if Godwin was on the site of a death, she did not perform the investigation, because as a salaried employee the county would then only have to pay deputies for transport instead of both.

Godwin said that she was a team player.

"I go out and help my deputies," she said.

When reminded that she was on a salary and the deputies are paid per investigation and body transport, Godwin replied, "I am a Constitutional officer. I don't have to do anything I don't want to do. I run my office and how I want to run it."

At that point, she was corrected by Jones that the coroner was not a Constitutional officer, but an elected official.

Guider said that because of all the discrepancies, she didn't know if things are legal or unethical.

"That is why I turned it over to the district attorneys office," she said.

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