The first meeting of the Watkinsville Mayor and City Council last week got off to a very smooth start, and the good mood continued through the 13-minute-long session.
“I think congratulations are in order for Mayor Smith,” Council Member Brian Brodrick said at the beginning of the meeting, referring to newly elected Mayor Bob Smith, seated to his right.
“I’m honored to be here,"Smith said, "and I call the meeting to order."
Administration of the oaths of office for Smith and for Council members Brodrick and Connie Massey were the first two items on the agenda, but when Smith turned to the items, City Attorney Joe Reitman Jr. told Smith that the administration of the oaths had been done in advance.
“You’re officially mayor,” Reitman said. “That’s handled.”
The Council removed discussion of Rules of Conduct of Official Business from the agenda and tabled discussion of “future process for swearing in of municipal officeholders,” saying both items would be discussed at future meetings.
No mention was made of Mayor Smith’s attempts to veto three decisions made by the Council in December.
Council had passed the two amendments to the City Code at its Dec. 18 meeting, the last of the year and the last with Dave Shearon as mayor.
|Smith At Council 1/8/2020|
One of those amendments created the position of city manager, and the other set up procedures for formation of Council agendas.
That session ran for almost six hours, and discussion of the City Manager Amendment alone lasted almost exactly one hour.
Council also granted variances to Oconee State Bank for construction of its new headquarters building on Main Street next to its Main Branch.
The vote in favor of the City Manager Amendment was 4 to 0, with Council Member Dan Matthews abstaining, though he spoke in favor of the amendment during the discussion.
Council also unanimously appointed Sharyn Dickerson, currently serving as city administrator, as city manager.
The vote on the Agenda Setting Amendment was unanimous.
The vote in favor of the variances for Oconee State Bank was 3 to 1, with Matthews voting in the negative.
Brodrick is a member of the Board of Oconee State Bank, so he did not participate in the discussion or the vote.
The variances have to do with the facade of the proposed building, the ground floor elevation, and the required build-to line.
On Dec. 23, then Mayor Shearon signed the City Manager Amendment and the Agenda Setting Amendment, returning them to City Clerk Julie Sanders. Sanders gave me copies of the amendments with Shearon’s dated signature.
The City Charter states these ordinances become law once they are signed and returned to the city clerk.
Variances take effect once they are passed by Council, according to Sanders, and do not require the mayor’s signature.
The City Charter stipulates that ordinances vetoed by the mayor should be presented to Council at its next “regular meeting.”
If three of the five Council members pass the vetoed ordinance, it becomes law, according to the Charter.
Smith filed paperwork with City Clerk Sanders on Jan. 3 saying he had vetoed the City Manager Amendment for eight reasons. He wrote that it creates “a joint exercise of powers by the Mayor and the City Manager.”
Smith said this change was inconsistent with the City Charter and “is a change in the form of city government that can only be done by the Georgia Legislature.”
Smith said he vetoed the Agenda Setting Amendment because it places public comment after voting on Old Business and New Business and does not allow “for public comment BEFORE action is taken by the Mayor and Council.”
Smith said he vetoed the variances issued to Oconee State Bank because the legal ad did not identify the property owner and had other deficiencies.
Smith, through his attorney, had raised objections to the City Manager Amendment before the Dec. 18 meeting, and Reitman told the Council changes he made in the Amendment for the second reading addressed those concerns.
None of the three vetoes came up at the meeting on Jan. 8.
Stories in the Athens Banner-Herald and The Oconee Enterprise prior to that Council meeting had focused mostly on Smith’s swearing in as mayor.
Smith had arranged to take the oath of office on Jan. 1 before Superior Court Judge Eric Norris and in front of the Eagle Tavern in downtown Watkinsville.
Brodrick said at the Jan. 8 meeting that confusion exists on when the oath should be administered, and this should be resolved in the future.
Less media attention was directed toward the vetoes that Smith filed on Jan. 3.
The Banner-Herald, anticipating controversy, had a reporter and photographer at the Jan. 8 meeting. The paper normally does not cover governmental meetings in the county.
The lead story on the front page of the Jan. 8 paper talked about the oath of office controversy and the meeting that night.
In another front page story on Jan. 10, the paper wrote that the meeting was “anti-climatic.”
The word is anticlimactic, meaning lack of climax.
Smith used his opportunity to make comments at the Jan. 8 meeting to thank former Mayor Shearon for his service to Watkinsville.
Shearon, who was present, thanked Smith for the acknowledgment.
Smith defeated Shearon by only two votes in November in what became a heated election.
Brodrick was re-elected without opposition, while Massey defeated challenger Jonathan Kirkpatrick
“I do want you to know, that I’m honored to be your mayor,” Smith continued. “Moving forward, we’ll work together to ensure your city’s open government and fiscal responsibility. Continue to work toward safety on our streets and in our neighborhoods.
“And let’s make Watkinsville first,” Smith said in conclusion.
Industrial Development Authority
As mayor, Smith is a member of the county’s Industrial Development Authority, which met for the first time this year on Monday.
|Smith At Industrial Development Authority 1/13/2020|
Smith was he the only Authority member to speak at the meeting, and he questioned Oconee County Finance Director Wes Geddings about the Authority’s financial report.
“Your interest earned on these accounts is zero for the most part,” Smith said. “Is there not some way to generate some income from the interest sitting in these banks?”
Geddings reported that the Authority has nearly $1.4 million spread across four different banks.
“Some of the accounts are earning upwards of one and half percent,” Geddings said. “As we know, the interest rates are not very active right now due to many worldwide events and the overall national economy.”
Geddings said he does what the Authority directs, but the primary concern has been with the “safety and security of the funds” and with liquidity.
Allocation of Funds
Smith also wanted to know how the Authority “divies up” the money among the banks.
Geddings said the accounts are with community banks that have served the Authority over the years.
The Authority meeting was brief, with no member making an individual report.
The group adjourned to executive session at the end of the public meeting to discuss real estate.
At that point I left the Authority meeting to attend the meeting of the Library Board.
John Daniell, chair of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners, told me via email that no action was taken when the Authority reconvened from executive session.
Daniell chaired the Authority meeting in the absence of Authority Chair Rick Waller, who was absent because of a schedule conflict.
The first video below is of the Watkinsville Council meeting of Jan. 8. I attended a meeting of the Animal Services Advisory Board that evening and could not be at the Council meeting.
Sarah Bell did attend the meeting and recorded the video below.
The second video is of the Dec. 18 meeting of Council. I was out of town, but Penny Mills did attend and recorded the video.
Discussion of the City Manager Amendment begins at 1:07:40 in the video.
Discussion of the Agenda Setting Amendment is at 2:08:40 in the video.
Discussion of the Oconee State Bank variance is at 3:56:12 in the video.
The third video is of the Jan. 13 meeting of the Industrial Development Authority.
Geddings began his financial report at 0:48 in the video, and Smith asked his questions about the report as soon as Geddings had finished his comments.
The sentence, “Stories in the Athens Banner-Herald and The Oconee Enterprise prior to that Council meeting had focused mostly on Smith’s swearing in as mayor” is a little misleading, as The Oconee Enterprise published a 1,101-word story on page A3 of the Dec. 12 issue about the city manager change, as well as a follow-up story at the top of A1 on Dec. 26.
Additionally, the veto attempt was a significant part of the Jan. 9 story with a subhead on the front page. The Enterprise went into detail about what the charter says on the veto process.
The reason the swearing-in controversy was so newsworthy is because:
A. The legal ad for candidate qualifying specifically states that the mayor can take office Jan. 1. However, Smith was denied access to his office on Jan. 2, the day after he was sworn in.
B. Smith was not treated the same as previous mayors before him in the last 15-20 years. Both The Enterprise and ABH stories explain the history of 21st century mayors taking the oath of office in December or within the first couple days of January.
It's clear the council lost in the court of public opinion on both the rush vote on city manager as well as mayoral swearing in and their denial to recognize. The overwhelming response to their recent decisions is incredibly unfavorable and they should be wise to work together with the newly elected Mayor instead of actively thwarting his authority.
Bravo for both comments.
Now it is time for the city council members to do their jobs- together.
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