"Embarrasing" Council Meeting Had "Lies," Foul Language
Disagreements between the Mayor and City Council over the fire consolidation plan may have carried over into the Etowah River Park project.
Thursday evening's meeting of the Canton City Council sought to put at rest two issues plaguing the board for months, but only aggravated tensions and even caused new tension between some council members.
"I am embarrassed by Thursday's proceeding and to think that the council has to go through what is has to go through to accomplish for our citizens in this city," said Councilman John Beresford.
The evening began with the city council voting on whether or not to override mayoral vetoes on some of the most controversial topics being discussed at City Hall currently and ended with one city councilman allegedly insulting the mayor.
Mayoral Staff Targets of Cuts
On Dec. 30, Mayor Gene Hobgood had vetoed two ordinances that were proposed by the city council. One ordinance would have removed the mayor's ability to have a full time staff, and the second ordinance would have increased compensation to the mayor and council members.
Supporters of removing the mayor's staff, including Councilman Bill Bryan, state the move is a cost-cutting measure and that no other mayor in comparable local governments has any administrative assistants.
Beresford, another supporter of the ordinance, says that the cutting of the mayor's staff would be part of an $80,000 savings plan that would be used to put 22 people back to work in the city's streets department.
"We're not against the mayor, we're trying to move this city ahead," Beresford said.
Hobgood claims that the ordinance as written fundamentally changes the system of government employed by the City of Canton and, as such, only the Georgia General Assembly can make the changes called for in the ordinance.
According to Hobgood, the City of Canton is run as a "strong mayor-weak council" governmental system. The wording of this sort of arrangement is found in the "strong mayor" model charter of the Georgia Municipal Association and is copied word-for-word in Canton's charter, according to Hobgood.
Supporting this view is former Gov. Roy Barnes, who attended Thursday's meeting and cited case law and the city's 1922 charter that establishes the mayor as the CEO of the city.
"Some of us believe we don't even have three branches of government, but Mr. Barnes pointed that out clearly," Hobgood said.
Hobgood feels that the council members that want to remove his staff are so entrenched in the business world that they do not yet understand how transparent all members of government must be.
"Government is different from private business," Hobgood said. "Public participation has to be encouraged; council members cannot go off in groups of four or five and make decisions and expect them to be enacted."
The city council voted to override the mayor's veto on the staffing issue.
Fire Services A Flash Point
This clash between the mayor and some council members can be traced to their opposing stances on fire services in Canton. Hobgood initially wanted to see the Canton Fire Department consolidated with Cherokee County Fire and Emergency Services.
Council members such as Beresford and Bryant preferred to keep the department under Canton's control, and pay for the construction of three new fire stations to held reduce the city's ISO rating.
Beresford said that the reason Hobgood wanted to consolidate with Cherokee County was so that he would not be responsible for raising taxes on citizens of Canton.
"The reality is that the citizens of Canton need a quality fire department," Beresford said. He added that, "Five council members voted against consolidating."
Beresford went on to say that when the council voted for a fire department tax outside of the senior tax exemption, meaning seniors would have to pay roughly $48 a year for the fire department, Hobgood threatened to sue if they continued on that path.
When the council voted 5-1 for the fire bond referendum, Beresford claims Hobgood, "couldn't stand that we went against his will." According to Beresford, Hobgood began a disinformation campaign that claimed seniors would lose their tax exemption.
Eventually, the two sides reached a "gentleman's agreement" on the fire issue and the staffing issue. According to Hobgood, the three tenets of the agreement he proposed were:
1) Total support for a $6 million fire services bond.
2) Mayor restricted to one administrative assistant hired and supervised by the mayor but able to work for council members on demand.
3) Hiring of an economic development director. The Main Street Supervisor Ginger Garrard would be under the development director, who would report to City Manager Scott Wood.
Hobgood said he did not hear back from council members Beresford or Bryan for a few days, until Bryan asked to meet with Hobgood on Wednesday or Thursday of last week to discuss the agreement. Hobgood said that by then his window on vetoing the removal of his staff would have expired, so he vetoed the measure to avoid losing his leverage.
"They changed the rules of the game and won't go along with the original agreement," Hobgood said. "I had to assume they backed out on the deal."
For his part, Bryan said during Thursday's meeting that claims he had backed out of a deal with Hobgood were, "a damn lie."
"The fact is that I made multiple attempts via e-mail to meet with Gene to finalize the details of the agreement," Bryan wrote in an e-mail to Patch. "He even refused to discuss it on Wednesday the 2nd when I happened to catch him in the back hallway at City Hall."
Compensation Increases Further Point of Contention
The mayor also vetoed a proposed compensation increase for all elected officials, saying that, "it was the right thing to do at this time."
"We do need to move the salaries forward but only when the economy allows us to do so," he said.
On the other side of the argument, Beresford says that despite a raise in compensation for elected officials, the increases will follow an already-approved ending of the pension plan, which should save the city $60,000 a year. The raises should cost around $40,000, which is still a net savings of $20,000 a year.
Combined with the estimated $60,000 saved by eliminating the mayor's staff, the City of Canton would have $80,000 more each year to spend on personnell and projects to help the city.
In the documentation written by the mayor explaining his decision to veto the compensation increase, he claims that if the increases are not approved, the city will save $40,000 on top of the $60,000 saved by ending the pension plan.
The mayor's veto claims this will bring a combined savings of $100,000 to the city, but this math is wrong; the city cannot save any money by keeping salaries where they are, they can only lose money by increasing the compensation.
Beresford claims this faulty math is a further example of the mayor's supposed disinformation campaign.
"The mayor says we're ripping people off. It's an art he has fined-tuned to a fare thee well."
The council voted to uphold the mayor's veto on compensation increases.
Etowah River Park Newest Battleground
This discord has boiled over into the efforts to construct the Etowah River Park, which has languished for four years. During Thursday's meeting, all bids and alternatives were discussed for the contractors who will be constructing the new park. This process was necessary for the Cherokee Board of Commissioners to know that the City of Canton had approved all bids and was ready to begin work.
Beresford planned to tackle a budget shortfall by a creative re-allocation of city funds. Under his plan, the city would pay for the installation of storm water improvements out of its own storm water budget, and the money left over from this re-allocation in the bids would go towards covering the shortfall.
"You have to put the storm water drainage into the park before you build the playground so the park doesn't erode into the river," Beresford said.
"I'm not opposed to using the storm water fund but storm water funds have been used like a piggy bank, which they shouldn't be," Hobgood said.
At the end of the Thursday meeting, when cornered and questioned by Beresford, Hobgood refused to sign the budget amendment that would have authorized the plan to shift money to pay for the construction of the park.
"He decides he's going to veto it," Beresford said. "He's going to put the project on hold to punish the council for not supporting his program."
"It's a game. It's gamesmanship," Beresford claimed.
Hobgood refutes Beresford's claim that he will veto the proposal.
"I intend to sign it, but I won't be forced into something by someone trying to take away the mayor's ability to hire an assistant," he said. "How could he expect me to be nice and do what they want me to do immediately when they turn around and try to nail me?"
Foul Language Directed at Mayor?
Beresford is alleged to have uttered foul language directed at the mayor at his refusal to immediately sign the park budget amendment. An independent viewing of the replay of the council meeting could not produce the so-called slur, but several gallery members claim to have heard Beresford's insult.
When told what he allegedly said to Hobgood, Beresford seemed taken aback and said, "there's enough good adjectives I could use on him," without having to resort to foul language.
"He isn't hurting me by not signing, he is hurting the city. It's a shame on the city."
Hobgood did not hear the alleged word either.
"Two or three people told me after we left that Beresford used an improper word," he said.
Can't We All Just Get Along?
Hobgood anticipates that the conflicts between the council and the mayor will subside slowly but surely.
"I anticipate it will eventually begin to smooth over," he said. "This is an election year, and I suspect people will be nicer to each other as election day draws closer."
The next meeting of the Canton City Council will take place on Jan. 17.