Who will run municipal election?

Published 9:45 am Tuesday, September 5, 2017

By Beth Alston

AMERICUS — The Americus mayor and city council had a full agenda Thursday for its monthly meeting which lasted just short of two hours. There was much discussion, debate, questioning, and presenting, proclaiming and congratulating going on, but the question left unanswered at the end of the day is: will the Sumter County Elections Office hold the Nov. 7 special election for the City of Americus or will the City of Americus be tasked with conducting it? The election has incumbent Mayor Barry Blount being challenged by former City Administrator Laura Lee Bernstein; Charles Christmas running unopposed for Carla Cook’s District 4 seat (Cook is not seeking reelection); Kelvin Pless challenging incumbent Shirley Green Reese for her District 5 seat; and District 3 incumbent Lou Chase running unopposed.
This discussion came near the end of the meeting, being the last item on the agenda: to consider approving the intergovernmental agreement (IGA) between the City of Americus and the Sumter County Board of Elections. This is an agreement for conducting the elections for the City of Americus and the costs associated. The City of Plains approved their IGA last week.
City attorney, Jimmy Skipper, said this IGA has been under negotiation between himself and the county attorney “all summer.” He said he met with the county attorney last week on the wording of the document and she (Kimberly Reid) didn’t want to make any other changes. It was agreed that the council would vote on the agreement Thursday.
Skipper said that Thursday afternoon, City Clerk Paula Martin received a telephone call from Robert Brady, superintendent of elections for Sumter County, and that Brady “indicated it was too late to pass this contract.” Skipper said while he and the county attorney were in negotiations, they didn’t talk about a deadline. He said the only issue, once council approved the IGA, was to work out “what was brought up today,” namely, the deadline.
Council member Shirley Green Reese shared that she had been told by Brady that she would have to obtain an absentee ballot for her mother from Paula Martin.
“Paula didn’t find out about this until this afternoon,” Skipper said. “The county attorney wasn’t available before the meeting. Qualifying just ended yesterday. I’m not saying anything bad about the county attorney or Mr. Brady.”
Council member Nelson Brown said he had been talking with Brady recently about an unrelated matter and Brady told him the IGA was “time sensitive.”
“He [Brad] went down the list of the process,” Brown said. “Are we still in the window? If not, we should be talking about the worst-case scenario. My biggest concern is that it’s time sensitive. Are we ready to take care of this election in proper order?’
Skipper reiterated that “qualifying only ended at 4:30 yesterday [Wednesday].”
Brown said he wants to discuss this with the elections board. Skipper said “this was just a misunderstanding” that he and the county attorney could work out.
Green Reese made the motion to approve the IGA which was seconded by Brown, and passed unanimously.
When asked about the matter, Robert Brady, supervisor of elections for Sumter County, issued the following statement in behalf of the Sumter County Board of Elections.
“The Municipal Election for the City of Americus will take place on November 7, 2017. Qualifying was held beginning August 21 at 8 am and continuing until August 23at 12:30pm. The election normally conducted by the Sumter County Board of Elections and Registration will this year be conducted by the City of Americus.
“The City of Americus and the Sumter County Board of Elections had a long standing Inter-Governmental Agreement to have the City’s election conducted by the County Board of Elections. This contract was cancelled in May of 2017 for the purposes of updating the language and a few small provisions that were obsolete.
“The Inter-Governmental Agreements with the City of Plains, and the City of Andersonville, were cancelled at the same time for the same purpose.
“At the time of the cancellation, a new proposed contract was presented to be considered to replace the old contract. The contract was forwarded to each group’s attorney for discussion and ratification.
“Agreements with the City of Plains, and the City of Andersonville were ratified by all concerned, and in the hand of the Sumter County Clerk, before the Qualifying period was begun. Unfortunately the County was not in possession of a completed contract with the City of Americus at that time. As the Qualifying period is the opening of the November Election, because the County was not in possession of a contract with the City of Americus before the election was begun, it became the responsibility of the City of Americus to conduct their own November election.
“Negotiations between the City of Americus and the Sumter County Board of Elections, through their lawyers, is continuing and it is hoped that the Sumter County Board of Election will again be conducting the City of Americus’ elections during the next election cycle.”
Another topic of lengthy discussion was an amendment to the Alcoholic Beverage License Ordinance, which was passed in April and amended more than once since. The item on the agenda at Thursday’s meeting was the first reading (which was actually the second reading, according to Skipper) of an amendment to the ordinance which would eliminate the requirement of finger printing and fees for background checks for the employees of alcohol license holders. Lou Chase made the motion to approve the amendment, seconded by Carla Cook. The motion failed 4-2 with Chase and Cook voting for and Brown, Wilson, Dowdell and Green Reese voting against.
Skipper interjected a clarification: that if the amendment was approved, there were would be no finger printing or fees for permits and if it failed, there would be finger printing and fees. Nelson Brown stated that he is not for this (amendment). Council member Juanita Wilson moved to eliminate the section of the ordinance (6.70) relating to finger printing and fees, seconded by Daryl Dowdell. Brown, Green Reese, Dowdell and Wilson voted yes while Cook and Chase voted no. The motion passed 4-2. The section also requires employees of alcohol licensees to be permitted, which will also be moot. Skipper said this vote would direct him to draft a new ordinance that would require first and second readings.
City manager, Steve Kennedy, said, “Part of the entirety of the ordinance is to benefit all the players (licensees) and to provide protection for the licensees.” He said his research of some other cities in Georgia showed that many have a similar requirement for permitting. “Even the licensee has to list all their employees with names, addresses and Social Security numbers. The licensees are responsible for the people they hire. My concern is that you [council] risk negligent legislation …  taking action or not taking action on something that is required at the federal and state levels. … We now have an Alcohol License Review Board. The penalties for non-compliance are directed more to the licensee than the employee unless they’ve been investigated. This is not to penalize the licensees but provides the benefit of insulation from their employees and what they do.” Kennedy listed other cities with this requirement (finger printing and background checks) as Cordele, Albany, Thomasville, Statesboro, Valdosta, Warner Robins, Fitzgerald and Columbus. “This is not cutting edge,” he told the council. “There are 700 cities in Georgia and each one I looked at had the background check requirement. Not knowing anything about someone pouring or selling alcohol is a risk. Why would a licensee not want this if it costs them nothing?” The city amended the ordinance in July to read that the cost of finger prints and background checks be borne by the city not the employees.
Brown said he wants a copy of the city list Kennedy has. “I’m not going against federal or state law,” he said. “I want to see documentation; I’m just trying to educate myself.”
Finally, a vote was taken on the motion with Brown, Green Reese, Dowdell and Wilson voting for and Chase and Cook voting no. Skipper was directed to redraw the ordinance without section 6.70.
Three citizens had been on the agenda to address mayor and council.
Jacob Battle, who wants to have the city name the park on Martin Luther King Boulevard for Millard Fuller, was a no-show.
Tore Mansfield, a local bar/club owner, asked council to reconsider its Entertainment Overlay Map to include his business which is located at 125 Bay St. The mayor said they would discuss his request next month.
Mike Harris, who said he lives in the county but owns property in the city, complained about the Americus Police Department not doing anything about threats against him from his tenants and wants the police to run criminal background checks on his tenants. Harris claims that the District Attorney’s Office sent an investigator to the police department and there was no documentation of his complaints. The mayor asked Americus Police Chief Mark Scott if he wanted to respond. The chief said there is a file and that’s how one of Harris’ complaints made it to State Court. “As I explained to him, we are not going to do things that aren’t legal.”
The mayor read a proclamation commending Patricia Crawford, who is retiring from the city after more than 31 years. Later, Nelson Brown had some glowing comments about Crawford’s service to the Americus Police Department as a secretary in several divisions.
The mayor administered the oath of office to Christie Ward who was appointed to the Alcohol License Review Board.
Jimmy Whaley, a representative of the Smarr-Smith Foundation, presented a portrait of slain officers, Nick Smarr and Jody Smith to the city. The painting was done during the Let’s Paint the Town Blue Gala fundraiser held in June. The mayor thanked the foundation and said that the painting will be hung in the Welcome Center in the Municipal Building once renovations are complete.
Cal Anderson, director of the Americus Housing Authority, gave a brief update to mayor and council. Lou Chase asked Anderson is potential public housing tenants have to undergo background checks. Anderson said yes, on all those age 18 and older. Should the background check include drug activity, alcohol abuse, physical harm to others, murder, the applicant is notified, and if they get their lives back together, they will be considered; however, Anderson said, there are two that will disallow applicants to obtain public housing: manufacture of methamphetamine and being a registered sex offender. This is a federal requirement.
Meredith Lipson of Mauldin & Jenkins made a presentation on the 2017 Audit Report for Calendar Year 2016.
In other business, the council took the following action.
• Approved a resolution concerning the health insurance coverage for employees eligible to retire early.
• Approved a resolution adopting the Americus-Sumter County 2017-2017 Comprehensive Plan.
• Approved a mutual aid agreement between the City of Americus Fire & Emergency Services and Sumter County Fire & Rescue.
• Authorized the expenditures of approximately $1.13 million to resurface various roads in Americus. These funds are from TSPLOST, SPLOST and LMIG revenues.
Council member Carla Cook remarked that serving on the council has been her “ultimate pleasure” and she hopes she’s made changes that have benefitted someone in their life.