city council meeting

Newly elected councilwoman’s proposals stall meeting for over an hour Tuesday night

Less than 10 minutes after the meeting began and less than two minutes after being sworn in, newly elected Blackshear Councilwoman Linda Gail Dennison (Dist. 6) brought last Tuesday night’s council meeting to a grinding halt.

Dennison asked to place a list of items on the agenda including:

1. Elect a mayor pro tem

2. Appoint a city clerk

3. Establish/employ a human resources coordinator/assistant city clerk

4. Abolish the position of special projects manager

5. Mayor and council member comments

6. Request from the public to be heard

7. Call for another meeting within 48 hours for the appointment of a city clerk if the matter could not be dealt with Tuesday.

Two council members and Mayor Kevin Grissom later told The Times they were completely surprised by Dennison’s requests while three council members had at least some knowledge of her intentions prior to the meeting. (See related story).

City Attorney Adam Ferrell, also caught unaware at the meeting, advised Dennison to take the items she wanted to add to the agenda one at a time.

“That was quite a bit,” Ferrell said.

“Yes, sir it was,” Dennison replied.

No. 1: Elect a Mayor Pro Tem

Dennison then proposed her first item  — elect a mayor pro tem.

When the mayor asked if the city charter called for that action at the first meeting of the new year, Councilman Shawn Godwin (Dist. 5), replied yes, and proceeded to search for the appropriate section online while the council and audience sat waiting approximately five minutes.

Councilman Corey Lesseig interjected, pointing out the charter (Section 3-11-A) requires newly elected officials be sworn in at the first meeting of the new year while the following section (Section B) instructs the city to organize with a mayor pro tem.

“Both A and B are separate and co-equal … it never says that we do this (elect a mayor pro tem) in this meeting,” Lesseig said.

Godwin then read the same section, telling the council it “depends on interpretation.”

“It seems like it falls under organization, Mr. Mayor, but it’s going to be how the counselor determines,” Godwin said.

“There are two different sections and it doesn’t specifically say that you’re required to do it at the organizational meeting,” the city attorney said. “It’s not clear.”

Godwin then seconded Dennison’s motion to add the item to the meeting agenda. The motion passed 4-2 with Godwin, Dennison, Charles Broady and Timmy Sapp voting in favor. Lesseig and Keith Brooks (current mayor pro tem) voted against the item, both claiming the charter didn’t specify it had to be handled at the January meeting.

Ferrell recommended the council move to approve the agenda as amended or hear other motions. Brooks replied the city charter didn’t call for agenda approval.

At Ferrell’s request, Grissom called for a 15 minute recess to research the proper procedure for amending an agenda.

Is it necessary?

Upon returning to the meeting, Ferrell advised the council of Georgia’s open meetings law and the city’s typical procedure for adding agenda items.

“Elected officials should avoid amending the agenda at a meeting to add a matter, particularly one that is known to be controversial, unless there is clear (reason) and necessity to do so,” Ferrell said.

That mention of “necessity” would come up again.

Typically, items are addressed at a city work session in advance of a monthly meeting. If items require legal review, they are submitted to the city clerk two weeks prior to the council meeting and also included on the work session agenda.

But, the city charter provides “nothing should prohibit the council from amending an agenda to include an item but such amendment shall require a two-thirds vote to amend the agenda to include those items.”

The city charter, however, is many decades old and newer laws such as the state’s Open Government mandate have caused some time restraints to be at least encouraged, if not required. The city attorney reminded Dennison and the rest of the council of just that.

“I would caution, one of the reasons for the open meeting rule and why we post the agenda, would be to provide the public notice of issues that are going to be on the agenda in advance of the meeting so the public can attend if they wish,” Ferrell continued.

“Basically, anything we would deem ‘necessary’ … Otherwise, I would ask that you hold those items until the next meeting and discuss them at the work session,” Grissom added.

Is it necessary?

Grissom asked that question repeatedly Tuesday night.

“I kept wanting to get an answer and I never got one,” Grissom told The Times after the meeting.

Further discussion revealed at least one of the items Dennison wanted to add  — request from the public to be heard  — was already on the agenda — and has long been a routine item. It was listed as “formal/informal request from the public,” Ferrell advised.

“It’s just not specifically set forth as part of the order of business under the city charter,” he added.

Brooks then moved to approve the agenda as published and to place all of Dennison’s proposed items on the work session agenda for Monday, February 3.  Lesseig provided a second.

Councilman Sapp asked if Dennison could have brought these items up at a work session two weeks ago, prior to her swearing in, and Grissom replied, yes. Dennison agreed.

“I could have said something and should have,” she said.

Meanwhile, Sapp and Broady both expressed confusion over the status of the council’s earlier vote (just before the recess) to add “elect mayor pro tem” to the agenda.

Did Brooks’ motion to return to the original agenda nullify that vote, they queried?

“It can be done two ways, make a motion to go back to the agenda as presented, motion to rescind the original motion to amend agenda with mayor pro tem,” Ferrell said. “I feel like the motion on the table is sufficient.”

Several minutes later Godwin called the question on Brooks’ motion to return to the originally published agenda and Grissom asked for a roll call vote.  Brooks’ motion failed by a 4-2 vote, bringing the amended agenda with one added item  — elect a mayor pro tem  — back to the table.

“We’re back to the original motion with the amended agenda,” Grissom said.

The council did finally elect another mayor pro tem, Charles Broady, by a similar 4-2 vote, later in the meeting. (See related story.)

No. 2: Appoint a city clerk

At the same time Ferrell was trying to clarify the order of business for Sapp and Broady, Dennison and Brooks were holding a side discussion about the next item Dennison wanted to propose  — appoint a city clerk.

Brooks asked if background checks had been done, to which Dennison replied she’d “made phone calls” and she then asserted a formal background check for the city clerk position has not been a requirement in the past.

That was incorrect, however.

“We do a background check on any employee,” Police Chief Chris Wright said.

Councilman Godwin then suggested a meeting be called in 48 hours to discuss that position.

Grissom and Brooks pressed Godwin to answer whether the council had agreed in a closed session earlier this month to wait two weeks before moving forward with that matter.

Godwin wouldn’t answer the question directly.

“This is my suggestion now Mr. Mayor,” Godwin said.

“We set a timetable in our work session … I don’t think we need to push that through tonight,” Grissom replied.

Following the council’s vote against Brooks’ motion, Grissom asked council if there was anything else they wished to propose be added to the agenda, while urging members to abide by the open meetings law.

“We ask that the council not (add anything to the agenda), based upon the law that says ‘unless it’s a necessary thing’,” he said.

Ferrell again urged the council to move slowly.

“There’s some of these things I’d certainly like to look into before the council considers them,” the city attorney added.

No. 3: Establish and appoint human resources coord./assistant city clerk

Dennison apparently took little heed of the cautions offered by the mayor and attorney and then moved to her third item, asking the agenda be amended to include “establish and appoint human resources coordinator/assistant city clerk.”

“You want to create that position and appoint that person tonight,” Brooks then asked.

“Possibly,” Dennison replied.

Brooks continued to question Dennison’s proposal, asking if background checks had been done on any proposed candidates and had the city provided adequate public notice to meet state law?

“Is it necessary tonight? That’s what we need to ask ourselves, according to what the law says,” Grissom reminded the council. “Are these items necessary tonight?”

Dennison never provided an answer to that question.  

Brooks again pointed out he considered a work session the proper place for such discussions.  

“You could be here all night trying to have a meeting without the work session done beforehand,” he said.

The city charter gives the mayor authority to appoint all personnel, with confirmation of council, except for city clerk and city attorney.

Again, the city attorney encouraged Dennison to follow what has been routine city procedures to be sure all mandates are met.

“I would want to look at that, and also we’d have to make sure we follow things in the personnel policy as far as hiring and other rules that keep us in compliance with federal employment practices, state employment practices. I would caution about rushing into that without looking into the matter,” Ferrell said.

Dennison never acknowledged Ferrell’s warning.

“Anything else that’s necessary before we move forward?” Grissom asked.

No. 4: Abolish position of special projects manager

Dennison responded by proposing her fourth agenda item.

“Well, abolish the position of special projects manager,” she offered next.

Police Chief Chris Wright was given that position in June 2019 and a stipend of $10,000 per year for the additional duties. His six-month review is coming up in the next few weeks.

Once again, the mayor balked at calling the item to a vote.

“Is that necessary tonight, and is that lawful tonight when we brought that person in for one year with a six month review?” Grissom asked.

The city attorney again expressed hesitancy as well.

“I would again caution about making personnel decisions before letting me look at that,” Ferrell said.

Dennison then proposed no further items.

The council did not begin to move through business until 64 minutes after the meeting was called to order, accounting for the 15 minute recess.