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State to Terminate Marion County Family Connection Contract

From the Nov. 7, 2018 issue
of The Journal

By Richard Harris
   All 159 counties in Georgia have a local Family Connection Partnership that is funded by the state. On November 15 that number will drop to 158, with Marion County being the only county in the entire state without the service.
   Robyn Crittenden, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS), recently informed local officials that the contract will be terminated "for cause".
   The state supplies $50,000 per year to the local Family Connection, which in turn is expected to coordinate all available resources in the community to achieve goals designed to improve the lives of children, families, and the community, while also coming up with solutions to meet local goals.
   Basically, there are many different government programs and agencies that offer a wide variety of services to communities, and Family Connection is supposed to "bring everyone together" to make sure the community takes advantage of all those resources.

   Ironically, Kevin Brown, the Executive Director of Marion Co. Family Connection, believes the inability of local officials to "come together" is what led to the drastic decision by the state to pull the plug on the local partnership.
   "It's definitely a personal vendetta from a City Council member," said Brown, who declined to comment on the reasons for the personal conflict. He added that the crisis also "stems back to the drama last year with City Council."
   Officially, the state's reason for the decision is that the local Family Connection fell under a corrective action plan after the state made repeated attempts to provide technical assistance and training. It then failed to meet multiple requirements of the plan.
   However, the state's official action plan also gives the following as a reason: "Also, local circumstances within the collaborative as well as in the community and the subsequent responses by MCFC have undermined their ability to safeguard the integrity of the local collaborative itself and the statewide network of Georgia Family Connection."
   Brown believes that reference is about not only the friction between the Buena Vista City Council and Family Connection (reported several times in this newspaper over the last year), but also about complaints made directly to state Family Connection representatives by at least one city official.
   "Michael Johnson (GFC Community Support Specialist) informed me that he got a call from a male City Council member and one other person with two complaints," said Brown.
   He acknowledges that one complaint was legitimate. Around four years ago the state added a regulation stating that the local Family Connection director could not be immediately related to an official of the local government that served as the fiscal agent (the local government that handles the money from the state). Kevin Brown is the brother of Buena Vista Mayor Ralph Brown. However, he had been the director for many years before the regulation was added and he hoped an exception could be made. In addition, the City Council voted to no longer serve as the fiscal agent (the County Commission took over), so it became a moot point.
   Brown said he was told that the other complaint was that the local Family Connection Executive Board was not meeting, which left the director without any supervision and free to do "whatever he wanted to do". Brown denies that allegation, adding that the many people who attend the meetings can collaborate that fact.
   At any rate, Family Connection fell under an Action Plan from the state that was 12 pages long and very detailed (a copy of it is available here). Family Connection failed to meet at least five portions of it, according to the Department of Human Services.
   Below are summaries of the five failures and summaries of Brown's response to each.
   1. Failure: At least three-fourths of the MCFC governing body and officers were required to meet with the Action Plan Compliance Manager and the technical assistance team, but they did not. There are 7 Board members, so at least 5 needed to be there and only 4 attended.
   Response: During this time two of the local MCFC Board members had changes in jobs/work schedules (including a new job with Tyson in Vienna) that made it impossible for them to make these meetings.
   2. Failure: MCFC was required to submit a signed copy of the FY18 4th Quarter Report by Aug. 15, but it wasn't received until Aug. 23.
   Response: The report had actually been prepared a day early with plans to print and sign, but we discovered that the Action Plan Compliance Manager from the state had visited the fiscal agent (Marion Co. Commission) and made changes to the report. That interference caused the report to be submitted late.
   3. Failure: The 4th Quarter Expenditure Report as submitted to the fiscal agent was not accurate and on time.
   Response: It was accurate and on time. The county clerk (for the fiscal agent) and myself presented a report that we believed was true and correct. The Compliance Manager expressed a belief that the numbers were incorrect, but that could have been addressed after the report was submitted (instead of holding the report up so that it missed the deadline).
   4. Failure: At least three-fourths of the MCFC Collaborative partners/members were required to take part in training by the state's technical assistance team. That means 30 of the 43 members needed to be present, but only 11 attended the training.
   Response: This was an unreasonable expectation. The bylaws of MCFC require only seven members to be present for a quorum. The "43 members" referenced by the state is from a "running list" of people who have attended a local meeting over a couple of years. It is not a list of "members" who are able to attend local meetings on a regular basis.
   5. Failure: It was the responsibility of the local Chair James Kinsey and Director Kevin Brown to notify the MCFC partners/members and officers of the Georgia Family Connection Technical Assistance Team two weeks prior to training, but that was not done.
   Response: In an attempt to juggle schedules of members, I sent out a notification when it was assured that members were available. Phone calls were being made to establish a firm date.
   Early Signs from the State: Prior to the official "Action Plan", which appears to have been a type of probationary period for Family Connection, Brown said the state had already been offering more local training. He said they were receptive to it, but personal issues with the Board Chair, who tragically lost his mother and godfather and had to travel out-of-state, made scheduling the training difficult. He believes this initial postponement of training was mistakenly taken by the state as a sign that the local leaders were being defiant, which led to a group of state officials visiting MCFC meetings and then the issuance of the Action Plan.
   Background: Space does not allow for a full recap of the friction previously reported by The Journal between MCFC and City Council. Those stories from previous issues are available online (look through the Top Stories of 2018). It got so heated that the City Council, in a split vote, kicked Marion County Family Connection out of the Josh Gibson Center, dropped the city's role as fiscal agent for MCFC, and terminated Brown's position as Director of the Josh Gibson Center (which was a separate job – $7,200 per year – than Family Connection Director). Council member Bernard Murray was Brown's most vocal opponent and at various times made accusations of "sabotage" and "insubordination". Brown denies any wrongdoing.
   What Now? There is a petition currently being circulated that asks the state to reinstate the local Family Connection under Kevin Brown's leadership (see separate story).
   The Marion County Commission does not run Family Connection, but serves as the fiscal agent (handling the state funds, not contributing local funds). Commission Chairman George Neal said he believes that a local Family Connection will at some point be reestablished (assuming the state does hold firm on its decision to terminate the current contract on Nov. 15).
   "We were made aware of the pending cancellation of the Family Connection Contract a couple of weeks ago so this is fairly new news to us," said Neal. "We are in the process of doing our due diligence to determine our next steps. I have been told that currently there are a 158 Family Connection Programs in the state of Georgia so I am fairly certain that there will be a program in Marion County. The Marion County Commission will be discussing this issue with all the partners over the next several weeks with the goal of reaching a positive resolution for our community."
   Director Kevin Brown said he hopes the current structure of MCFC can be salvaged, but even if that doesn't happen he plans to continue to serve the public in some type of similar way. After being kicked out of the original Josh Gibson Center (the old school on Rogers Street), he moved the Family Connection Office into a new office space (also called the Josh Gibson Center) on the downtown square. He personally pays the $500 per month rent for the office, which is also the home of his insurance company KB Insurance Group. He provides the meeting space and office space for Family Connection at no charge.