Former councilwoman and mayor pro tem Mary Lott Walker has been appointed to a second term on Blackshear’s board of ethics in a 3-2 vote that sparked the latest controversy between city council members and Mayor Kevin Grissom last week.
Walker was appointed to the board against the mayor’s recommendation because she failed to show up for an interview before special committee members Keith Brooks and Shawn Godwin Friday, July 10.
“If this council pushes this through, then it needs to be reflected on the record that it was exactly that,” Grissom said just prior to Walker’s appointment.
“As far as I’m concerned, if she’s not going to interview, I don’t think we need to consider her for the ethics committee,” Brooks told the council last week.
A second applicant, recently retired middle school principal Perry Tison, did appear for a public interview two weeks ago, and was recommended by Brooks for the appointment.
Godwin was quick to say he had no problem with Tison serving on the board at a later date, but felt Walker should be allowed to “continue on the board” after having been appointed last August to fill the remainder of Donnie Harris’ term when Harris died in the middle of his one-year appointment.
That term reportedly ended in May and the city readvertised the open position in The Blackshear Times earlier this month. Walker and Tison both applied. Walker will now serve a two-year term on the board of ethics through 2022.
“In the future he (Tison) would be great for the board of ethics. However, at this time, I do not believe it would be the right thing to do to remove Miss Walker from the board of ethics,” Godwin said.
Brooks countered, pointing out Walker was not being removed from the board, rather her term expired, and he recommended she be replaced by Tison.
“I think he (Tison) would be the absolute best candidate to go on the ethics board at this time. Anybody who can’t show up (for an interview) and can’t call in, they shouldn’t be considered in my book,” Brooks argued.
“She removed herself by not contacting, not reaching out, not explaining why she could not attend. And, has made no contact since. I think we have a situation where we have one candidate who interviewed and one candidate who is qualified,” councilman Corey Lesseig agreed.
Godwin informed the council he had heard from Walker who expressed her willingness to be appointed to another term and said she had a conflict with the interview scheduled two weeks ago.
Mayor Grissom and council members continued to debate the matter for 30 minutes last week.
Godwin, Linda Gail Dennison and Charles Broady, all in favor of Walker’s appointment, questioned why an interview process was necessary for this board when interviews were not conducted for other board appointments, and why Walker had not been personally notified her term expired in May.
“Was she notified?” Dennison inquired. “No one even bothered to let her know.”
Walker must have been aware of her term’s expiration, however, because she submitted another application once the city re-advertised the position earlier this month. The advertisement appeared in the July 1 and July 8 editions of The Blackshear Times.
Those council members also argued Walker was well qualified for the position, and questioned Brooks ability to interview Walker without bias after he voted against her appointment last year and repeatedly vocalized concerns with her voting record when she previously served on the city council, particularly her vote regarding a land deal four years ago. (See related story).
“Why are we going through this when we have somebody who’s qualified to do the job?” Broady asked.
Walker served over 30 years as a local educator, 16 on council and eight as mayor pro tem, Broady reported.
Grissom countered the interview was necessary because the city received two applicants.
“When you have two applicants, it’s only fair to go through a process and consider both applicants,” Grissom said.
Other boards are structured so that the board makes a recommendation to the council for appointment. That recommendation is typically approved as presented.
Broady, who assumed the role of parliamentarian last Tuesday night, called for a point of order, noting there had been no motion for appointment of a new board member but lots of discussion.
Lesseig then made a motion to appoint Tison to the board of ethics which was voted down by Broady, Dennison and Godwin. Brooks voted in favor. Broady followed up with a motion to appoint Walker.
Brooks and Grissom both expressed their strong disagreement and Grissom asked City Attorney Adam Ferrell for an opinion regarding Broady’s motion.
“Can he make a motion to appoint someone who did not interview,” Grissom asked?
Ferrell was unable to answer the mayor’s question at the meeting, asking for time to review the city’s ordinance. Ferrell told The Times Thursday he had reviewed the matter, but did not want to comment publicly until conferring with Grissom.
While waiting on Ferrell to issue an opinion, Brooks offered to reschedule the interview at Walker’s convenience. The appointment could be tabled until she interviewed.
“That way we can go forward with the process set forth to appoint this position,” he said.
“If you want to choose somebody just because, then that’s not open records, that’s not democracy, that’s not sunshine (law). Apparently that’s what this is,” Lesseig interjected.
Dennison replied she was “not ok” with Walker being interviewed.
“I have disagreed with this whole thing from the beginning,” Broady added. “If they’ve got the experience to be able to stay there, let them do the job.”
Broady called Brooks’ objectivity into question at a work session July 6 when Grissom appointed Brooks and Godwin to the interview committee. Brooks argued then, and since, that he intended to ask both Walker and Tison the same interview questions and could maintain objectivity.
“You (Brooks) have a thing about Ms. Mary Lott Walker,” Broady said.
As Brooks pressed why those in favor of Walker’s appointment would not consent to her public interview, his exchange with Broady grew more heated.
“I’ll answer the question accordingly as I see fit to give the answer … I’m not going to get in a pissing contest … bickering back and to,” Broady said.
Brooks maintained he would have asked the same questions of Walker and Tison.
But, Brooks’ assurances did not appease those in favor of Walker’s appointment.
“The only problem with the questions was you see the same bias that he had the first meeting when she was voted in,” Godwin said. “There’s just too much history between him and Miss Walker for him to have done that interview in a fair manner.”
“The history is her votes on the council … nothing to do with me personally,” Brooks replied.
Grissom expressed confidence in Brooks’ objectivity at the work session and during last week’s meeting.
Brooks had no vendetta, Grissom says.
Broady made a motion last Tuesday for Walker’s appointment to the board of ethics. Godwin seconded the motion and it passed with Broady, Godwin and Dennison voting in favor. Brooks and Lesseig voted against Walker’s appointment. Councilman Timmy Sapp was absent from the meeting.
Broady rebuffed Brooks’ question last week, but told The Times after the meeting he would have been open to Walker sitting for an interview — without Brooks on the panel.
When asked if he had a problem with the interview being conducted in public, Broady replied, “I didn’t agree with the interview at all … We’ve never had one, to my knowledge, open like that.”
Broady maintains his position would have been the same regardless of who was up for appointment though, pointing to historical precedent regarding other board appointments.
“I’m not giving a hard time for her (Walker) per se. I think for anybody we should be fair across the board. The rules are good for one as they are the other,” he said.
Dennison and Godwin did not return phone calls or emails from The Times for further comment last week. Dennison told The Times “I’m busy” before hanging up.
The Times also tried to reach Walker for comment regarding her appointment and her reasons for not interviewing as requested. Walker did not return calls from The Times.
City clerk weighs in on ethics apt.
Blackshear council members Charles Broady, Linda Gail Dennison and Shawn Godwin voted to appoint Mary Lott Walker to the city’s board of ethics last week, insisting it wasn’t necessary she sit for an interview, but was their backing of Walker’s appointment consistent with their earlier voting record?
City Clerk Jenny Grant doesn’t think so.
As controversy over Walker’s appointment grew heated at a council meeting last week, Grant reminded council members they didn’t grant her the same courtesy when she sought the job of city clerk in January.
“I would like to point out to the council members that y’all didn’t do the same for me when my job came available. I was doing the job as the city clerk but y’all did not automatically let me continue doing the job I was already doing,” Grant said.
Broady, Dennison and Godwin argued last week Walker deserved to be appointed to another term on the board without sitting for an interview because she had previously filled the unexpired term of Donnie Harris who died in office. Mayor Kevin Grissom and council members Keith Brooks and Corey Lesseig argued the interview process was necessary because two people applied for the position. (See related story).
“Y’all put it up to be advertised and had other people apply for it (the job of clerk),” Grant continued. “I find it odd … y’all didn’t give me the same courtesy y’all are giving Miss Mary Lott.”
Dennison was the only council member to reply, telling Grant this appointment was “different” because it’s a volunteer position rather than a paid job.
Grant and former Better Hometown Manager René Bolden both applied for city clerk earlier this year. Grant had been filling the job of clerk since former city clerk Suzanne Manning was placed on leave pending an internal investigation and then resigned in September 2019.
Dennison, Godwin and Councilman Timmy Sapp still voted against Grant’s hire, even after Bolden withdrew her name leaving Grant the sole applicant, and only agreed to Grant’s appointment after community members pressured them heavily at a packed council meeting in February. Broady was absent from that meeting.
Brooks: ‘History matters’
Blackshear Councilman Keith Brooks has been criticized by fellow council members in recent days for his opposition to former councilwoman and longtime educator, Mary Lott Walker’s, appointment to the city’s board of ethics.
Walker’s supporters appointed her to a second term on the board in a 3-2 vote last week, claiming Brooks was biased against Walker and could not have interviewed her objectively for the position. (See related stories).
Brooks maintains he could have been objective while interviewing Walker alongside Councilman Shawn Godwin had she appeared for the interview, but has also argued Walker’s prior voting record when she served on the city council is relevant to her appointment to the board of ethics.
Brooks’ main point of contention with Walker’s appointment centers around a land deal with local developer Joey Walker the council bickered over in September 2016. He also opposed her appointment because she failed to show up for an interview July 10 while a second applicant, former PCMS principal Perry Tison, did appear.
“History does mean something … if somebody has a past history of doing something I deem unethical, I don’t think she should serve on the board,” Brooks says. “Name one employer anywhere that will hire a person that doesn’t show up for a job interview … especially if you have two people, the other guy shows up and was a suitable candidate.”
Walker did not return phone calls from The Times seeking comment last week. Last year, in response to Brooks’ objection to her first appointment to the board of ethics, Walker said “let the vote speak for itself.” Her first appointment was approved by a vote of 5-1 in August 2019 with Brooks voting against.
According to The Times archives, the City of Blackshear and Joey Walker entered into an agreement in 2010 for 3.65 acres of land J. Walker owned adjacent to the city cemetery. J. Walker and the city would split cemetery plot revenue 50/50.
Pierce County tax records show the property is currently valued at $43,800.
In July 2016, J. Walker, accompanied by his attorney C. Deen Strickland, asked the city for approximately $277,000 as settlement for unsold burial spaces, due to a “lack of impartial sales of the lots and property for the expansion.”
J. Walker reportedly claimed the city failed to adequately market the cemetery.
In September of that year, the city council voted 3-2 to pay J. Walker $175,000 for his half interest in the cemetery lot. Former council member Melvin Johnson first moved to pay J. Walker roughly $275,000, but the motion brought objection from former Mayor Dick Larson and other council members, prompting Johnson to amend his motion to $175,000.
The action passed with Johnson, Timmy Sapp and Mary Lott Walker voting in favor. Council members Keith Brooks and David Smith both voted no. Council member Jerry Dixon (now deceased) was absent, reportedly out of the country.
“They (Mary Lott Walker, Johnson and Sapp) brought it up when they knew they had the votes to pass it,” Brooks told The Times last week.
According to The Times coverage four years ago, J. Walker indicated he might not be willing to accept the $175,000 payment anyhow.
“I haven’t heard anything from the city, but that would be 16 percent of the value of what I’ve created there. That cemetery land, at $1,200 per grave, is worth $1.1 million. Who would sell their property for 16 percent of what it’s worth?,” he said at the time.
Former Mayor Dick Larson claimed a majority of the city’s governing body did not want to pay J. Walker $175,000 for his interest in a portion of the city cemetery, and he called at least two council meetings in an attempt to have the proposed payment rescinded. M. Walker, Johnson and Sapp did not show up for those meetings. With no quorum present, the council could take no action on the matter.
“That was not coincidental,” Brooks says. “As far as I’m concerned that’s unethical also (skipping the meetings).”
The proposed payment was eventually rescinded by a majority of the council when a quorum was again present at a meeting, and the contract established in 2010 reportedly remains in place today. Mike Carter reportedly later bought Walker out of the contract.
What does Blackshear’s ethics board do?
What does Blackshear’s board of ethics do, and how is it structured?
The board of ethics would be called upon to review any complaints of ethics violations among elected officials pertaining to their voting record or personal conduct. But, the board has not been presented with any complaints in the last year, perhaps longer.
“There has been and will not be any ethics board matters that I am aware of,” Mayor Kevin Grissom told The Times. “Most of those will deal with ethics such as a council member voting on something that would benefit them like sale of a property or things of that nature.”
According to the city’s ordinance, the board of ethics consists of three members, one appointed by the mayor and two appointed by the city council. All members shall serve a two-year term, but the first appointments to the board were directed to serve staggered terms — one shall serve for one year, one shall serve for two years, and one shall serve for three years, so as to provide staggered two-year terms for all future board members, the ordinance reads.
Qualifications for serving on the board of ethics are as follows:
• All members of the board of ethics shall be residents of the city
• No person shall serve as a member of the board of ethics if the person has, or has had within the preceding one-year period, any interest in any contract or contracting opportunity with the city or has been employed by the city;
• Members of the board of ethics with any permit or rezoning application pending before the city, or any pending or potential litigation against the city or any city official charged in the complaint, shall be disqualified from serving on the board of ethics for that complaint;
• The members of the board of ethics shall serve without compensation.
• No person shall serve on the board of ethics who has been convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude in this state or any other state, unless such person’s civil rights have been restored and at least ten years have elapsed from the date of the completion of the sentence without a subsequent conviction of another felony involving moral turpitude;
• No person shall serve on the board of ethics who is less than 21 years of age, who holds a public elective office, who is physically or mentally unable to discharge the duties of a member of the board of ethics, or who is not qualified to be a registered voter in the City of Blackshear;
The city clerk is tasked with maintaining a current list of the board members. Reginald Taylor and Bob Knapp serve alongside Mary Lott Walker who was appointed to a full term in her own right last week. (See related story).