Jul 28, 2014

Citizens Criticize Council's Spending, "Decorum" Proposal

Commenters decried council's attempts to "castrate the mayor" and to impose strict decorum rules on public comment sessions.

Citizens Criticize Council's Spending, "Decorum" Proposal

Topics such as the proposed change of the charter amendment to remove Mayor Gene Hobgood's staff and a perceived move to stifle citizen input were the focal points of the 75-minute public comment session during the Thursday evening meeting of the Canton City Council.

Eleven citizens took to the podium to contribute their viewpoints, beginning what would turn out to be nearly a three-hour meeting. Speakers included Farris Yawn, owner of Yawn's Books & More and former Councilwoman Pat Tanner.

The tone of the evening was seemingly set by Mayor Gene Hobgood, who said in his opening statements that the council should be a reflection of citizens' participation in city government.

"This is your City Hall," Hobgood said. "It is with your input that we as representatives should make our decisions."

Most of the input from the citizenry seemed to be focused on Hobgood and the efforts led by Councilman Bill Bryan to amend the new city charter in order to remove the mayor's ability to have a staff.

"It seems this move was a sneak attack in the making," said speaker Pat Gold. In reference to Bryan's stance that a part-time mayor should not be allowed a full-time staff, Gold said that the council members' jobs are also part time, and they often say that they are often overwhelmed by their workloads.

14-year Cantonite Carole Day put her concerns more succinctly when she said that the citizens of Canton, "did not vote for the mayor to be castrated." She also wondered why no council members or their representatives were actively involved in the 18-month process to come up with a new city charter led by a committee of citizens.

Bill Bryan defended his position by comparing Canton's staff situation with 12 other local communities; according to his research, only Johns Creek and Roswell had any sort of staff for the mayor. Bryan said that Cherokee County Commissioner Buzz Ahrens told him that the entire county government works off of one administrative assistant.

Bryan went on to explicitly state that Main Street Director Ginger Garrard's job was not in jeopardy, and said that administrative assistant Trish Fowler seemed to be excited about her upcoming retirement and relieved that Bryan's plan had worked in enough time for Fowler to earn her full vestment for retirement.

Councilman Glen Cummins, who brought the discussion to the agenda to avoid a procedural error, felt that the proposed change in the charter was significant enough that it would warrant the approval of the state legislature. Cummins said the removal of the mayor's staff was a "shift of power" from the executive to the legislative branch of the city government and that this change in the form of government needed state approval to proceed.

Cummins concluded by saying that a budget amendment reallocating funds from the mayor's office would be just as effective as an amendment removing the mayor's ability to have a staff.

Resident Sandy McGrew continued her campaign against the city's fiscal choices by expressing her concerns that the purchased by the city were done so in advance of a vote on the matter. She also said that the $51,000 Canton Theatre renovation was fiscally ill-timed, and that the plans for the city to renovate council chambers were a $400,000 waste.

Alluding to Hobgood's opening statement, McGrew said, "My house does not need renovating."

Other residents spoke against the proposed new rules for "Couth and Decorum" brought forth by Councilman John Beresford to curb some of the outbursts from the audience during public comment.

"These measures will further limit our ability to have a transparent process," said Jay Saro. "They will further lead us down a tyrannical highway."

Citizens speaking in favor of the new rules included veteran Ed Walsh, who said that the last council meeting was his first and the disruptive behavior exhibited by members of the audience was unacceptable. Former Councilwoman Pat Tanner felt decorum was in the best interests of the council and the citizenry, saying that if citizens want to be heard they must also be willing to listen with an open mind.

Beresford admitted during the course of the meeting that he had plagiarized the couth and decorum guidelines from another city because he liked the overall stance the document took.

He also admitted that he was personally opposed to provisions of the document that required prior submission of statements to be given during public comment and the inability to discuss topics not on the agenda. He contended that he left these items in the document because he wanted to leave them open for debate amongst council.

Beresford also accused the mayor's office of releasing "misinformation" about the document that claimed Beresford wanted to shut down public input.

Major topics discussed by the mayor and council included the revised compensation package for elected officials and the proposed bond referendum for new fire stations.

The general consensus of the council was that the votes to end the retirement package for elected officials and the salary increase should be voted on separately but during the same voting session. For now, it appears council members will receive $8,000 annually while the mayor will receive $10,000 a year for his efforts under the new compensation package.

Hobgood said that he could not vote himself a raise in these tough economic times, and hoped that a desire to do one's civic duty would be incentive enough for young people to become council members or mayors in the near future.

The ending of the retirement plan should save the city $65,000 a year, whilst the proposed salary increases would cost $40,000. Instead of increasing salaries, Hobgood said he would like to see all the saved money put towards the Fire Department.

A further point of contention arose in the discussion of the funding analysis of the proposed March bond referendum for new fire stations and a state-of-the art fire training facility inside city limits.

In a rare moment, both councilmen Bryan and Cummins agreed that a proposed $1 million fire training facility may be redundant in light of Cherokee County's new facility, which it has opened for municipal fire departments to conduct training exercises.

Beresford wanted to stick with the proposed funding analysis, suggesting that the cost of building a facility for Canton may eventually cost about as much as user fees the county would charge for use of its facility. Beresford also argued that a facility inside the city limits would improve response times should a fire situation arise when the department is in a training exercise and needs to quickly roll out to the scene.

The last item of discussion on the agenda involved a request by Bryan to turn on more of the city's pedestrian lights. Various motions were proposed on the length of time the lights would be left on until City Manager Scott Wood asked the council if "cutting street lights on is a policy decision?" The city manager has the power to spend up to $20,000, which would cover the costs of the operation of the reactivated lights.

The nearly three hour affair was adjourned shortly after Councilman Jack Goodwin asked if there was any way the council could hold their work sessions before their meetings to cut down on the length of the meetings themselves.

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