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Stockbridge Council revisiting charter-change issue

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Jason A. Smith

jsmith@henryherald.com

Months after the dust began to settle around how to run the government in Stockbridge, the issue of mayoral powers in the city has risen again.

The Stockbridge City Council voted unanimously Monday, to approve an ordinance changing the city charter regarding the delegation of powers for Mayor Lee Stuart. It was the first of two votes which must be take place on the issue. A final vote will come July 11.

Earlier this year, Mayor Stuart asked the county's legislative delegation to the Georgia General Assembly to seek a change in the city's form of government, to allow for a city administrator.

The governing body also asked legislative approval for the change in how the city is governed, which will more clearly define the duties of the mayor, and other city administrators.

The request to hire a city administrator, as well as changing the city's governance structure from that of strong mayor, to one featuring a city administrator, comes in the wake of a dispute between Stuart and the city council over his governance.

The disagreement led to the mayor filing a lawsuit, last year, regarding his veto power. Andy Welch, a partner at the Smith Welch Webb & White law firm, which represents the city, said Stockbridge leaders are proposing to amend three provisions of the city's charter, regarding Stockbridge's powers granted through practice of home rule.

"The three amendments under consideration would clarify the powers of the mayor in relation to the city administrator, a position that will report to the mayor, as well as the mayor's veto powers," Welch said. "The amendments do not change the form or composition of the City's government. The mayor remains the CEO of the city."

The proposed new ordinance is "exactly the same" as the one originally voted on by the State Senate, said Stockbridge Mayor Pro Tem Kathy Gilbert.

"It was totally rewritten when it went through the House of Representatives," Gilbert said. "It bore no resemblance to the legislation that was presented to the senate. It was unprecedented that local legislation would be totally rewritten."

State Rep. Steve Davis (R-McDonough) acknowledged he attached language to the bill, regarding district voting, and distributed it at a town-hall meeting in March.

"I thought what we had proposed was fair. It died because we couldn't come to an agreement," said Davis. In April, the state legislature voted down a measure to change the city's charter, dubbed Senate Bill 189, during the final days of a legislative session. "There was overwhelming opposition to making these changes without any input, or at least a referendum," Davis said in April.

Now, with the proposed ordinance, Davis wrote the council complaining that its ability to make administrative, local charter changes, does not include changing the city's form of government, or "eroding the powers of the mayor."

He went on the say in his letter: The Municipal Home Rule Act of 1965 ... expressly does not extend to "action affecting the composition and form of the municipal governing authority [and] ... any attempt to change the executive powers, including the veto powers, of the mayor ... will be considered as a substantial change to the form of government, and therefore would be unconstitutional."

Following Monday's meeting, Mayor Stuart said he supports the ordinance, and the council's right to vote on it. "I am not an attorney," Stuart said. "I cannot comment on the legal propriety of the vote, or the ordinance that is drafted ... I will not have further comment until I review the vote with my counsel."

Last year, Stuart feuded with his fellow council members until they reached an agreement that resulted in the hiring of a city administrator, Ray Gibson, last month.

Gibson did not comment on the specifics of the proposed ordinance.

"I have not really sat down and reviewed the proposed ordinance changes," Gibson said.

The proposed ordinance has stirred concerns among some local residents. Marilyn Flynn complained that residents have not been adequately informed about their local government.

"To me, it's just a conflict between the council and the mayor. They sent it to the legislature, it didn't pass, and now they've come up with another way to push it through," the 20-year resident said.

Stockbridge resident George Espada, said he is concerned the law firm representing the city has provided "no written analysis, or legal opinion," regarding the proposed charter ordinance.

"It's unacceptable and unprofessional to push this legal issue through City Council, and force an issue that has been already discussed ..." he said.

Richard Steinberg, of the Concerned Citizens of Stockbridge group, said the council "appears hell-bent on changing the city charter and the powers of the mayor."

He agreed with Rep. Davis, describing the city charter as a "dead issue." He said the council has not responded to pleas from residents, to keep the city charter as it is." [Residents] want the right to vote on any such change, should one be coming, rather than having it mandated by the city council," Steinberg said.

Not everyone who spoke at the meeting, directed verbal jabs at the council. Gordon Gilbert, husband of Mayor Pro Tem Kathy Gilbert, said there is a reason for "the veil of secrecy and litigation that seems to be holding up communication to the public."

"If the mayor hadn't filed a lawsuit, we wouldn't be having this discussion," he said.