Lee photo

Zach Lee, downtown business owner, addresses the committee at last Thursday's investigative hearing.

Investigative hearing held Thurs. to review petition for Dennison, Godwin, Sapp’s removal from office or special recall election

A citizen petition for the removal from office or recall election for Blackshear council members Linda Gail Dennison, Shawn Godwin and Timmy Sapp is under discussion again.

A special committee appointed by Mayor Kevin Grissom to review the matter held an investigative hearing Thursday night, June 25.

Approximately 30 people attended the hour-long hearing in person while another 200 watched the proceedings online. Dennison, Godwin and Sapp were invited to attend the hearing and offer explanation or defense to the charges against them, but none did.

Grissom appointed council members Keith Brooks, Charles Broady and Corey Lesseig (the remaining council members not named in the petition) to the committee last March, and Lesseig, who serves as the committee chairman, initially called for a hearing March 20. The hearing was postponed, however, due to concerns over COVID-19 (coronavirus) and calls to limit public gatherings in an effort to reduce the virus’ spread.

Lesseig opened last week’s hearing by explaining its purpose was solely investigatory  — not disciplinary. There was no vote to remove or retain any of the three council members named in the petition.

Citizens were allowed to address the committee with their complaints against Dennison, Godwin and/or Sapp. Petitioner Mat Boatright did so virtually, attending the meeting from home. Angela Manders, Zach Lee and Darlene Aldridge spoke at the hearing. Shirley Smith also addressed the committee about a separate problem related to her water bill.

Boatright’s petition levies three complaints against Dennison, Godwin and Sapp  — misfeasance, malfeasance and incompetence.  Nearly 90 Blackshear residents ranging in age from 19 to 94, and including former mayors Tom Davis and Dick Larson, had signed the petition when Boatright first presented it to the mayor and council in early March.

According to the city charter, misfeasance, malfeasance and incompetence are one of six reasons why a council member could be removed from office. Council members may also be removed for abandonment of office or neglect to perform the duties required.

Lesseig pointed to the distinction between charges of misfeasance and malfeasance prior to Boatright’s comments Thursday. The former is defined as the wrongful exercise of lawful authority often characterized as lawful, but inappropriate behavior while malfeasance, by definition, is wrongdoing committed intentionally with knowledge that such action is dishonest or illegal.

“All government of right, originates with the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole. Public officers are trustees and servants of the people and are at all times amenable to them,” Boatright told the committee, quoting an excerpt from the Georgia Constitution.

“Through the actions you [Dennison, Godwin, Sapp] have displayed at the previous meetings and on social media, we the public believe you have put our city at risk through acts of incompetence, misfeasance or malfeasance in office and no longer trust that your performance benefits our city,” Boatright continued.

Boatright then presented reported evidence from council meeting minutes of misfeasance, malfeasance and incompetence against Dennison, Godwin and Sapp for their initial opposition to the hire of City Clerk Jenny Grant in January.

Boatright expressed his hesitancy to become involved in the situation, and told the committee his desire to set a good example for his children pushed him to do so.

“I hate to see us be tarnished like this … I even have people outside of our county asking me what’s going on here and that’s my whole reason for getting involved,” Boatright said. “I typically don’t get involved, but I have children and my children are looking at their father and sometimes you just have to stand up and do what needs to be done to set a good example for your children.”

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Angela Manders, who also addressed the council with concerns over their divisive actions earlier in the year, spoke at the hearing, but kept her comments brief, stressing the council’s recent actions negatively impacted the local business community.

“We need to have one focus right now … staying healthy and supporting our businesses and industries. The type of unethical behavior that we’ve seen and the drama that continues with the city council is not good for business,” she said. “Our small businesses have enough to deal with right now … this type of behavior negates everything that economic development professionals in our community are trying to do every day.”

Zach Lee, owner of Zach and Isabelle, spoke next. Lee’s downtown hair salon has been in business for 14 years.

“We shouldn’t have to police you like this. You’re acting like a bunch of kids who don’t get their way and frankly you all need discipline,” Lee said. “You’ve shown complete disregard for the process of local government, choosing instead to push your agendas seemingly being led and directed by outside sources and you didn’t think we would all be smart enough to catch on. Well, we have and we’re not going to take it.”

Lee then asserted he would help campaign for Dennison, Godwin and Sapp’s competition in the next election should they remain on council until then.

He closed by addressing Godwin directly by referencing one of Godwin’s recent social media posts that read: When you build in silence people don’t know what to attack.  

“When you build together, people don’t have to attack,” Lee countered.

Darlene Aldridge polled the hearing attendees asking who knew what district they live in and who their council member is, reporting most residents don’t know that information. She also pointed to low voter turnout.

“I think that’s a lot of the issue,” Aldridge said.

She suggested the city could do a better job informing the public who their elected officials are, what district they live in, and when city elections are held.

Lesseig agreed, pointing to updates, including elected official photos, posted to the City of Blackshear’s website and activity on the city’s Facebook page as the city’s most recent effort to engage its citizens.

Aldridge then asked if it were possible to restructure the council so members were “at large” rather than serving within district lines. Such a restructuring would require a revision to the city’s charter which would have to be approved by the Georgia General Assembly, Lesseig replied.

Aldridge also urged council members to utilize the technology, primarily laptops, provided by the city and purchased with taxpayer dollars. In closing, she criticized council members for poor meeting attendance.

“These people not showing up for meetings is a huge issue,” Aldridge said. “You should be at the meetings … this is a job and I expect council members to represent their districts as a job. If they cannot fill those requirements, they don’t need to sit on the council.”

Lesseig reported other complaints leveled against council members as follows:

1. Regular meeting attendance. (Brooks, Dennison and Lesseig have perfect attendance for 2020 while Godwin has 94 percent attendance. Broady has a 69 percent attendance rate and Sapp has a 63 percent attendance record.)

2. Violation of open meetings law.

3. Censorship of free speech on social media. “As a public official you don’t have the right to not listen (to someone’s free speech),” Lesseig said. “Everyone on the council has been informed that by our attorney.”

Lesseig also addressed community concerns over the legality of the hearing held last week.

“There’s word in the community that this was an illegal meeting, and because it was an illegal meeting, our attorney was distancing himself,” Lesseig said. “Our attorney is not here because he is the attorney of the entire council and this is an issue amongst the council. Therefore, there is a bit of a conflict of interest between individuals. The other (reason) is that he is not required in any fashion to be at a committee meeting.”

City Attorney Adam Ferrell told The Times last week he saw no legal problem with the special committee hearing, only pointing out that it was a committee meeting rather than a council meeting.

Broady, attending the committee meeting virtually, had no comment. Brooks only comment at the close of the hearing was that the problems being addressed were not new.

“This does have a history,” Brooks said.

With only three council members serving on this special committee and no quorum present, the committee was not required to hold a public meeting, but Lesseig, a supporter of open meetings law asked the hearing be advertised for two weeks and open to the public.

“Any committee meeting that I’ll ever chair, you can come (to),” Lesseig told the audience.

“When the light shines, things happen,” Lesseig said in closing. Democracy is like a circus … It works when we remember that you [the people] rule and we get to govern.”

How can council members be removed from office?

Per the city charter, a council member can be removed from office by the vote of four council members following an investigative hearing. According to the charter, the elected official(s) is entitled to a written notice specifying the ground or grounds for removal and to a public hearing which shall be held not less than 10 days after the service of such written notice. Any elected officer sought to be removed from office shall have the right of appeal from the decision of the city council to the Superior Court of Pierce County.

With three of the sitting council members named in the petition, however, such a majority vote is not likely to happen.

Elected officials may also be removed from office by order of the Superior Court of Pierce County following a hearing on a complaint seeking such removal. That complaint could be brought by any resident of Blackshear.

Citizens could also pursue a recall election. A petition for recall requires the signatures of 30 percent of registered voters in a district. Sixty-seven voters would reportedly need to sign the petition in Sapp’s district (District 3), 97 in Godwin’s district (District 5) and 112 in Dennison’s district (District 6).