May 22—LEESBURG — Following the regular meeting of the Lee County Commission held on May 11, The Albany Herald received numerous correspondences related to comments by Chairman Billy Mathis suggesting that the commission would no longer begin each meeting with an invocation and instead would do so on a quarterly basis.
At the beginning of that meeting, the audio on the Facebook broadcast was not functioning, and consequently only those in attendance heard the chairman's remarks.
When Mathis was contacted in an effort to verify and clarify his comments he said, "Our staff has had a difficult time finding local pastors that are able to come to every meeting. I think we should have local pastors come to give the invocation."
As that has proven to be problematic, Mathis said he felt that the logical solution was to revert to a previous practice of the commission, which had the invocations led by local pastors scheduled on a quarterly basis. No motion was made nor was there any discussion or vote taken in regard to this statement.
When contacted for their opinions on the issue, Commissioners Luke Singletary and Rick Muggeridge said that they felt there were alternatives to the elimination of the invocation at each meeting.
"We have the time, and I think we have someone — be it a commissioner, an employee — someone that can say a prayer seeking guidance," Singletary said. "In these times, Lord knows, we need it."
"I get it that there are reasons why if you're a pastor you may not want or be able to come," Muggridge said. "But for years, we have prayed at every meeting. A commissioner can lead a prayer. I've been asked to many times, and never said no."
Asked about the issue, Commissioner John Wheaton answered, "I don't have any comment on that."
Commissioner George Walls did not return calls seeking his opinion.
In recounting the efforts made by the commission in regard to seeking participation by local pastors, Lee County Manager Christi Dockery said, "We went to the tax accessor's office and got a list of every tax-exempt church registered in the county and sent a letter to each of them. We reached out through a local ministerial alliance."
However, Dockery said, response has been limited.
Dockery provided The Albany Herald with a copy of the letter that was mailed on Oct. 17, 2019. The letter reads:
The Lee County Board of Commissioners would like to invite local church pastors to participate in their bi-monthly board meetings by leading the opening invocation.
All churches in Lee County are being included in this invitation. If you would like to be placed on the schedule, please contact me at (229) 759-6000 or email@example.com with your contact information so that we may coordinate with you or your staff.
Thank you in advance for your public service. We look forward to working with you.
The letter was mailed to a multidenominational list of the 33 churches in the county. Seven were returned as undeliverable.
In a follow-up conversation on the topic Mathis reiterated that this was not a matter of individual commissioners or the Board of Commissioners as a whole having any objection to prayer.
"I pray every day; I pray more than once a day," he said. "I said a prayer before I made this call."