An emergency meeting to discuss a pending lawsuit ended in a heated face-to-face exchange between two commissioners that brought law enforcement to the meeting room.
By the time deputies arrived, Commissioners Carmen McLemore and Joanna Bryan had separated, but not before another episode in the soap opera that has become the Gulf County Jail played out.
The meeting was called to notify commissioners that county attorney Jeremy Novak had received a notice of intent to file suit against the BOCC.
The suit, Novak said, alleges defamation, negligent training and negligent supervision and is being brought by Tallahassee attorney Marie Mattox on behalf of James Smith.
Smith was formerly employed at the jail and according to warden Michael Hammond had left the county’s employ some three years ago.
Novak said he was asking for approval to move ahead with the needed steps: perform an investigation into the allegations, notify the BOCC insurance carrier and hire special counsel.
Novak said the public emergency meeting was necessary under statute – the county failed to take this step when notified of a federal lawsuit brought by a local political action committee – to receive BOCC approval to move ahead and be able to call a closed-door session when appropriate to discuss legal strategy.
Before commissioners voted on a motion to approve Novak’s request and adjourn the meeting, however, McLemore requested permission to ask a question of Hammond regarding any further background on the suit.
Hammond said Smith was an individual who had been talking to Bryan – in three separate meetings Hammond has accused Bryan of conspiring with others to have the county sued over the jail, a charge Bryan has vehemently denied.
Hammond said Smith was bragging about receiving his back pay and other promises he supposedly received from Bryan, which she vehemently denied.
Hammond, echoing remarks by McLemore, also reiterated that the attorney handling the lawsuit was the same attorney who represented a local PAC in a suit against the BOCC.
Bryan said none of what Hammond was saying was true regarding her interactions with Smith and later cautioned Hammond, as she did in a prior special meeting, to “check himself” as to his comments to her, which Bryan has repeatedly labeled as “insubordination.”
She said McLemore had “teed” up his question in order to allow Hammond to once again attack her on the subject of the jail, which Hammond has coincided with Bryan’s inquiries about operations, budget and an inspection of the jail.
Hammond said it was a “liability” for the county to have a commissioner talking to disgruntled former employees and was also a problem for staff.
In the midst of the exchange, Novak was repeating a request previously made to commissioners and staff – if there are questions about pending issues address them individually outside public meetings – and Commission chair Tan Smiley was trying to intercede.
Commissioner Warren Yeager again reiterated a motion to approve Novak’s request and adjourn the meeting and second was on the floor and moved for a vote.
Upon adjournment, Bryan and McLemore engaged in a pointed exchange just out of microphone and ear shot of all but those at the podium while Smiley repeatedly slammed his gavel and tried to separate the two.
McLemore, standing over Bryan, moved slightly away but continued to jaw at his fellow commissioner for several minutes as she returned in kind.
Before deputies, called by staff from the meeting room, arrived, McLemore walked into the hallway, with Hammond, while Bryan began a discussion with Novak.