Photo by Kathy Jefcoats
Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Carla Wong McMillian (r) administered a ceremonial oath of office to Forest Park Mayor David Lockhart (third from right) Monday night. Clayton County State Court Judge Aaron Mason (l) introduced McMillian. With the three are Lockhart’s wife, mother and children. Lockhart took the oath in private last week, presenting a sworn affidavit to City Manager John Parker after the fact.
By Kathy Jefcoats
FOREST PARK — Council members voted 3-1 Monday night to fire the law firm that has represented Forest Park since 2006 in a move that surprised onlookers and the lone dissenter.
Council members had just handed out awards to the winners of "If I were Mayor," an essay contest for sixth-graders, when Latresa Akins asked to add an agenda item.
"I would like to add item '4a' to reconsider the city attorneys," said Akins. "We've been discussing change, we have a new mayor and I think we should give you the tools to work with. I'd like to ask council to consider other firms."
The room fell silent. City Manager John Parker looked toward city attorneys Robert Mack and Joe Harris. Mayor Pro Tem Linda Lord appeared shocked. Before Lord could speak, Councilman Tommy Smith, who took office April 1, did.
"I think we should terminate immediately and bring in Fincher, Denmark and Williams," he said. "And we should authorize the mayor to transition the details between the two firms."
Attorney David Lockhart won the mayor's seat in a runoff election April 16. Monday's meeting was the first regular meeting over which he presided.
Lockhart began asking for votes on the motion as Lord questioned it.
"Why did we choose Fincher and Denmark? Why did we choose to terminate?" she said, obviously bewildered. "It seems like something is going on and it needs discussion. This is definitely not about the archives, you said you were adding an item about the archives. We didn't talk about this. This definitely needs more discussion than we've had at this point."
Lockhart called for a vote, getting "yays" from Smith, Akins and Maudie McCord, and a "nay" from Lord.
Mack and Harris were asked to leave the meeting, which they did. Neither wanted to talk about the action, asking a reporter from the Clayton News Daily for time to digest what happened. Under the city charter, city attorneys serve at the pleasure of the board.
However, Harris was willing to question the procedure itself.
"I don't think they can do that the way it was done," he said.
After the meeting, Akins said the decision seemed sudden to onlookers but it wasn't a rash choice.
"We've been talking about it for about a month," she said. "It seems like they were the attorneys for the city manager but not for us. Change is good, you know? Change is good."
"We needed a change," he said. "These attorneys have been here before and they are attorneys for Lake City and they do a fine job. They're a good fix. We've been in discussions for a little while about it."
The firm also represents Clayton County Water Authority, Clayton County Housing Authority, and the cities of College Park, Jonesboro and McDonough, according to its website.
Whether council members met in quorum to discuss the issue without giving legal notice is unclear. The way the action was taken is also up for debate. Amy Henderson, spokeswoman for Georgia Municipal Authority, said city governments are given guidelines on how to add items to an agenda but the best source is the city's charter.
According to Forest Park's charter, a list of agenda items are to be given to the city manager no more than a week before a regular meeting. The city manager then assembles the list no more than 96 hours before the meeting.
Henderson said the goal is to ensure the public is informed about what the council members will be discussing. She also pointed to the Georgia Open Meetings Act for guidance.
"The Act says an item can be considered to be added if it is deemed necessary to address," said Henderson. "The problem is the courts have not defined what is deemed 'necessary.'"
David E. Hudson, counsel for the Georgia Press Association, agreed.
"The Open Meetings Act specifies that items can be added to the agenda 'when necessary,'" he said. "There has been one Superior Court case that invalidated a local government’s actions when the Superior Court found that there were no contingencies that made it 'necessary' to act on an item that had not been on the published and pre-distributed agenda."
Mack and Harris have represented Forest Park since 2006 and was re-appointed in January. Most recently, they have successfully defended the city against litigation by the corporation that owns two adult entertainment centers, Pink Pony South and Crazy Horse Saloon.
Galardi South operates several businesses known colloquially as "strip clubs," including two in Forest Park. However, the city took action two years ago, using the club's own video surveillance against owners during public hearings that showed illegal activity taking place.
The action resulted in the closing of the clubs and a change in the charter that keeps the clubs from renewing their business licenses. Since the closures, club officials have continued to attend city council meetings to promise they are not going away.
There was discussion this week about whether the change in law firms was in any way related to that issue.