Residents demand answers

Blackshear resident Wes Kutch questions council as to why they voted down Jenny Grant’s appointment for clerk.

City council votes down Grant for clerk, caves to public pressure and reverses course after locals ask ‘why’ repeatedly Tuesday night

Cries of outrage and calls for at least one council member to step down amidst cheers and applause, marked what some longtime Blackshear residents describe as the most tumultuous city council meeting they’ve ever attended last Tuesday night.

More than 50 residents attended last week’s council meeting after January’s meeting was brought to a grinding halt by the unexpected proposals of newly-elected Councilwoman Linda Gail Dennison. (See related stories in the January 21 edition of The Blackshear Times).

Residents showed up last week primarily to hold the council accountable for their decisions by their presence, but when the council voted down Jenny Grant’s appointment as city clerk by a 3-2 vote, they took more aggressive action, pressing those who voted no to explain why.

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Angela Manders opened the meeting by giving the invocation. She implored council members to act with wisdom and humility. A few minutes later when the floor was opened for public comment, she addressed the council again, chastising them for their actions last month.

“I have never been more ashamed of or more concerned for the future of Pierce County,” Manders said. “I am going to beg you all to behave in a more professional, orderly, and respectful manner or resign your position.”

Manders reminded the council their disputes, which play out in the public eye, are costly to the community, potentially pushing away industrial and economic growth in the area.

“Your actions negate everything the Chamber, the Development Authority, and the Main Street Program are working to accomplish for our community,” she continued. “The way you have conducted yourself in this very room, on social media and out in the public is not the way we behave in Pierce County. Don’t try to emulate the theatrics of Washington. That type of behavior doesn’t translate well to local politics.”

Manders pleas appeared to fall on deaf ears.

A few moments later, Mayor Kevin Grissom called for a motion to conduct a closed session to discuss the appointment of a city clerk. A committee of council members and city department heads interviewed the top two candidates, Renè Bolden and Jenny Grant, earlier this month. Last weekend, Bolden withdrew her application leaving Grant the sole top candidate to apply and be interviewed.

Grissom waited, but no motion came. He then pressed for any consideration of a clerk appointment, and Councilman Keith Brooks noted the city was up against their six-month timeline to appoint a new clerk. Former city clerk Suzanne Manning resigned in September 2019. Grant has been fulfilling many of the job duties since that time.

Councilman Corey Lesseig, who was on the interview committee, made a motion to appoint Grant and Brooks provided a second. By roll call vote, council members Timmy Sapp, Shawn Godwin and Linda Gail Dennison voted no. Lesseig and Brooks voted yes to Grant’s appointment.

Councilman Charles Broady was absent from the meeting. He later told The Times health issues prevented him from attending.

Blackshear resident Wes Kutch was the first to speak up, pressing the council for an answer as to why they didn’t approve Grant’s appointment.

“Everybody on the council agreed to interview those two candidates,” Kutch said. “There’s one left and y’all are voting against her, just curious why?”

Manders pushed harder.

“What interview process was used, and what are the results?,” she asked.

“Obviously everything I said made no difference … be vigilant Pierce County!” Manders said.

Her comments were met with “amens” around the room.

Godwin reported both candidates did well on the interview and had skills to match the job. He questioned whether or not Grant’s qualifications matched what was advertised in the job description.

“The question at hand is … do all the candidates have the requirements of the job posting that was put out?” Godwin said. “That is my concern. That’s why I voted the way I did.”

Grissom read aloud the job description as advertised, asking Godwin to clarify what point he took issue with.

“On those qualifications there, what exactly was it?,” Grissom asked.

Godwin did not think Grant qualified as having “at least two years management and/or supervision experience preferred.”

She worked for 13 years as assistant manager at Hester & Morris Orthodontics in Valdosta overseeing 19 office employees, but Godwin said that didn’t meet the expectation in his opinion.

“That’s just my opinion. I’m just one vote,” he said.  

Folks grumbled at Godwin’s reply.

“My recommendation without any question was that Jenny Grant is more than qualified,” Lesseig told the crowd.

Someone asked from the audience then asked why there were “no” votes.

“I don’t know, ma’am,” Lesseig replied.

Residents continued to press Sapp, Godwin and Dennison for answers.

“You can’t direct questions to the council members,” Sapp said.

“I can!” Councilman Brooks said, spinning his chair around to face Sapp.

Brooks’ exclamation was met with snickers and applause from the audience.

“What is your plan going forward and your reasons behind your no vote,” Brooks asked. “Are we going to start the process all over?”

Rather than answer the question directly, Sapp accused Brooks of saying one applicant was too old for the job when they received applications.

“I did not say he was too old, I said it was something that would need to be taken into consideration,” Brooks countered, amidst protests of “that’s ageism” from the crowd.

Grissom slammed his gavel on the table, attempting to restore order to the meeting and reprimanded Sapp for bringing up information discussed in a previous closed session.

“I mean this, hold on, stop now,” Grissom said. “That was in (closed) session and it was not to be brought up.”

Sapp maintained the matter was not discussed in a closed meeting.

Residents continued to question why Grant was not qualified for the appointment now when she was a top candidate a few weeks ago. Brooks asked the interview committee to explain their process.

A rubric of 25 questions was used to interview both candidates. The questions were posed to Bolden and Grant in the same order and interviewers graded their responses on a 100-point scale.

Police Chief Chris Wright, one of the interviewers, was tasked with compiling everyone’s scores following the interviews.

“Did you receive the information from everyone?,” Brooks asked.

Wright reported he received everyone’s scores except Godwin’s. The other four interviewers rated Grant higher than Bolden.

“Why did you ask to be on the committee if you were not going to give your information to the committee so they could compile it?,” Brooks asked Godwin.

“The only reason Chris did not get it before this meeting was due to my work schedule,” Godwin replied.

Brooks didn’t drop the matter  — you have plenty of time to be on Facebook, he told Godwin.

The room erupted in laughter.

Godwin often takes to his ‘Shawn Godwin for Dist 5 City Council’ Facebook page to express his views on city business.

Godwin later provided his scores to The Times. He ranked Grant a 79 and Bolden an 84 on the 100 point scale.

The mayor asked if anyone who voted against Grant’s appointment would like to reconsider, but his proposal was met with silence.

Grissom then stepped to the podium to address the crowd as a fellow citizen, holding back tears.

“I’m very embarrassed, very humiliated that this took place in front of you. Don’t give up. Be a team and fight, stay in there,” Grissom said.

Turning to the council, Grissom reminded them some had previously committed to appoint Grant as clerk.

“Those commitments were not fulfilled and I won’t forget it,” he told them.

Kevin Manders, District Five resident, raised his voice above the applause for Grissom.

“I’m willing to come back right now (as a councilman) if Mr. Godwin will step down,” he said.

His proposal was met with more cheers and applause.

“What do we do now?,” Brooks asked.

Locals urged the council to work the matter out immediately, rather than start the process over at taxpayers’ expense.

“Come on Timmy (Sapp), you’re better than this,” Angela Manders cried.

Karen Herndon asked Brooks to again press Sapp and Dennison for an explanation.

Brooks did so.

“I only had one person to begin with,” Sapp said.

“It was a no vote because you wanted that one person and they dropped out?,” Brooks pressed.  

Sapp never confirmed or denied Brooks’ question.

Brooks turned his attention to Dennison, but rather than answer the question directly, she implied Brooks tried to push Grant’s appointment through in December before she took office, and claimed Grant received a “humongous raise.”

“She got a raise because she’s doing the job of city clerk,” Brooks countered.

Grant received a $4.55/hour raise in December for her additional job duties. The raise brought her to the starting clerk salary of $20/hour as adopted by resolution last week.

The crowd protested with cries of “answer the question,” and Grissom gaveled again, calling for a point of order.

Brooks continued to press Dennison as to why she voted no.

“Because of you!” she said.

The roar of the crowd grew loudest at that revelation with calls for Dennison to immediately be referred to the ethics committee.

“I’ll pay for her attorney because she needs one!,” said Colleen Youmans, Blackshear resident.

As of press time, no formal ethics complaint had been filed against Dennison.

Grissom restored order, asked City Attorney Adam Ferrell to clarify an earlier claim by Dennison that department heads had to be re-appointed annually, and then called for a closed session to discuss the clerk appointment.

Ferrell reported the city charter does not require department heads to be re-appointed annually. All department heads are appointed by the mayor with the exception of city clerk and city attorney.  

The council voted unanimously to go into closed session where they remained for approximately 20 minutes.

Most of the crowd stayed at city hall, awaiting the outcome. Angela Manders again rallied the crowd, requesting they pray together.

“Dr. Kevin Smith is going to lead us in prayer. It’s the only hope we have … pray for these people, pray for a change of heart, pray that they resign or something tonight!” Manders said.

Public opinion prevailed in the end. The council reversed course following their closed session, and approved Grant as city clerk. (See related story).

“The council has agreed, we have prayed, asked God’s guidance on this decision,” Grissom told the crowd. “May we all go out of here and continue to pray that He will unify us like we feel He has tonight.”