Strife Marks Fort Oglethorpe Council Meeting, Again

Tuesday, April 9, 2013 - by Mike O'Neal
Interim Chief of Police Jeff Holcomb is seen with some citizens evicted from the April 8 city council meeting in Fort Oglethorpe
Interim Chief of Police Jeff Holcomb is seen with some citizens evicted from the April 8 city council meeting in Fort Oglethorpe

Another chapter was added to the drama that is Fort Oglethorpe politics during the city council meeting Monday night.

 

Public gatherings in this Northwest Georgia town have taken on a circus-like atmosphere since a called meeting on March 22 that resulted in the forced resignation of City Manager Ron Goulart and the firings of Police Chief David Eubanks and Public Works Director Jeff Long.

 

The regularly scheduled April 8 meeting was no different: changes to long-standing policies were announced, resolutions died from lack of council support and some citizens were ejected from the council chamber.

 

The mayor said he had erred in allowing anyone and everyone an opportunity to speak at the end of council meetings and announced strict adherence to the city charter guidelines for public participation will be followed at all future gatherings.

 

To prevent meetings degenerating into a circus, the mayor announced that anyone wishing to speak at a regular Monday meeting must now contact city hall the prior week and have their name placed on the agenda. Only those named on the agenda will be recognized during meetings, a five-minute time limit for comments will be enforced and only one person will be recognized to represent a group.

 

Many citizens in attendance agreed that such actions by the mayor and council would only strengthen a grassroots movement calling for the resignation or recall of the mayor and several councilmen.

 

Having made the pronouncement regarding the proper way for citizens to conduct themselves during council meetings, Mayor Long guided the council through dull but necessary readings of zoning requests and updating the city’s building code ordinances.

 

Then the council revisited what has been a controversial issue for several years: permitting the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sunday.

 

Referendums to allow Sunday sales of wine and beer were defeated in 2011 when about 19 percent of Fort Oglethorpe’s registered voters went to the polls.

 

The council, by a 3-2 vote last summer, declined adding the same referendums on the November 2012 general election ballot.

 

 

Residents of the unincorporated areas of Catoosa County and those living in Ringgold voted in November to allow Sunday sales of alcoholic beverages.

 

Though there is no guarantee that such a referendum would have passed, repercussions that Fort Oglethorpe remains the only portion of the county banning Sunday sales of alcoholic beverages were quick — and costly.

 

Citing a potential buyer’s stipulation that its purchase was contingent on Sunday sales being allowed, Northwest Georgia Bank this year asked that a 41.25-acre tract of foreclosed property near the intersection of Dietz Road and Battlefield Parkway be de-annexed from Fort Oglethorpe.

 

The first step of de-annexation requires a county be willing to accept property the transfer of property from the city’s to the county’s tax roll and that is what the county commission agreed to.

 

Jeff Long (no relation to the mayor), who in addition to his job with Fort Oglethorpe is the elected representative for District 1 on the Catoosa County Board of Commissioners, on Feb. 7 made the motion that the commission grant the bank’s request to accept the property should it cease being part of the city.

 

“Under Georgia law, before a property can be de-annexed, its request must be approved by the county before it can be acted on by the city,” County Attorney Chad Young said during that commission meeting in February. “Either the city or the state legislature can then approve the de-annexation request.”

 

Because Fort Oglethorpe’s council refused consideration of the bank’s request, the matter was determined by the state legislature during the just-completed term and the property now is no longer part of the city.

 

According to Mayor Long, it was Mr. Long’s action as a commissioner — making the motion to consider a de-annexation request — that led to his being fired from his job in Fort Oglethorpe. The mayor said the public works director had not acted in the city’s best interest and is to blame for the loss of about $11,000 in annual property taxes formerly paid on the now de-annexed land.

 

The very issue that led to the de-annexation request and associated firings at city hall continues to be a bone of contention during the upcoming election.

 

A referendum to allow seven-day-a-week sales of beer and wine within the city limits will be on the November ballot due to Mayor Long casting tie-breaking votes on resolutions that the item be placed on the ballot.

 

Mr. Long said these deadlocks, with councilmen Earl Gray and Clay Kissner voting for and councilmen Louis Hamm and Johnnie “Red” Smith voting against the resolutions, marked the first time since his election as mayor in 2010 that his vote has been necessary to resolve council business.

 

After the council had concluded its regular business for the evening, the floor was open for citizens to express their views about recent events in their city.

 

It was when members of the public began expressing their views that the mayor ordered police officers to escort citizens from the public meeting for real — or perceived — breaches of decorum.

 

After order was restored, the council went into executive session.

 

About 20 minutes after going into a closed-door meeting, the council returned to vote on a salary for Harold Silcox who has been appointed interim city manager.

 

For the third time, the mayor cast a tie-breaking vote by again siding with Mr. Hamm and Mr. Smith in setting Mr. Silcox’s salary at $3,000 per month for the time he serves as manager.

 

After the meeting, the mayor replied “no comment” when asked why he asked for no one to second a motion, by Councilman Earl Gray, that Mr. Goulart’s resignation be rescinded and be rehired as full-time manager.

 

Local restauranteur Jack Goodlet said recent events have caused him to abandon his usual position of “it’s better-for-business to be a fence sitter” and to demand changes in the city’s administration.

 

“This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.

 

moneal2480@comcast.net

Some of those ejected from the city council meeting holding “recall” signs
Some of those ejected from the city council meeting holding “recall” signs

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