City tables alcohol ordinance amendment vote until June

Published 7:04 pm Friday, May 25, 2018

By Beth Alston

AMERICUS — Before another packed house, the Americus Mayor and City Council held its regular monthly meeting Thursday at the Russell Thomas Jr. Public Safety Building.
At the beginning of the meeting, Mayor Barry Blount added to the already lengthy agenda two items: discussion of the RMS Transit contract renewal and to add a closed session at the end of the meeting to discuss “personnel.”
Two people had requested and been granted permission to address mayor and council. Shirley Green-Reese was not present due to an illness in her family.
Tracy Hall spoke. A resident of the 600 block of South Lee Street, Hall said she has been “disappointed, hurt and angry” for past few weeks. She listed her top priorities as God, family and home. She also listed myriad qualities of Americus that make it a great place to live. “She [Americus] has never, ever, ever let the worst thing be the last thing,” she said.
Hall’s main focus concerned the recent termination of city manager, Steve Kennedy last month.
I have been asked by all of you to question you,” she said. “To come to you and ask you why you vote the way you vote. And so, I did. I got an invitation from three of you … and you told me quite frankly that you didn’t know why, that it came out of the blue for you like it came out of the blue for me … The other four … I have contacted you several times. Two of you have told me that you will see me when certain conditions have been met. Two of you haven’t responded at all.” She said she and her family and neighbors all know that no response is a response. “It’s loud and clear that you don’t want to see us,” she said.
Hall lauded Kennedy for all the things he did to make Americus better during his time here. She mentioned growth, new activities, national awards. She said she hadn’t seen Americus’ blood pump so strongly since 1975. She said many of her neighbors had never been civically involved before Kennedy invited them and they did become involved.
She said it took “40 minutes” for the council to get rid of one the city’s biggest assets — Kennedy. She called members of council into question about their knowledge of the state’s open meetings and records laws or “you’re so impetuous and self-centered that you would take 40 minutes to fire my top administrator. … I have waited longer for a table at an average restaurant. … We see you doing such things and we just want you to see us while you’re doing it. … Losing Steve Kennedy feels like the worst thing. My question now is ‘is it the last thing’? … Are you through dishing out the worst things? Should we expect more of this 4-2 voting for no reason? Should we expect you to continue to make decisions that will hurt this city? Should we tell our city employees that you spent their raises on firing Mr. Kennedy? … ”
Hall wrapped up by saying she and her family and other concerned citizens are hoping there is still a place at the table for them. “We are ready to get back to work. We are ready to overcome the most recent worst thing,” she said. “Are you or do you have more to put on us? We see you. We are watching as we always have but this time we needed to speak on what we saw. Other things we can overlook until election time, but this can’t. What we need is for you to see us. We will be right here when it’s time to do the work but no, we’re not interested in putting in the labor for roots that you will only destroy or for what appears to be a personal agenda.”
Following Hall’s speech, there was applause from the audience, which resulted in the gavel by the mayor. This occurred at several junctures during the meeting.
Council member Nelson Brown responded. He said he and Hall had had a lengthy conversation. “I’ve not getting into a debate but I want you [Tracy Hall] and the other people who came with you tonight or came for the same reason [to know] being on council is a tough job.” He said all concerns are important but in his district he has had nothing but compliments for the decision to fire Kennedy. He stressed the importance of “trust, training, transparency, accountability, communication and information” to be successful.
Brown said it was “definitely not 40 minutes” to make the decision to terminate Kennedy’s employment. He went on to say that Kennedy had been “causing some concerns.”
The Times-Recorder didn’t have anyone covering the meeting in which the council decided Kennedy’s fate due to a death in the family. However, in trying to report the action the council took, the Times-Recorder learned that Council member Juanita Wilson had requested to add a closed session to the meeting agenda to discuss personnel, and that closed-door session lasted about 40 minutes.
Brown told Hall that the vote to fire Kennedy “was not a rash decision.” Brown said that Kennedy had made a request of the city to have a public hearing and Brown wants the city to “release the letter to everyone to read.” Mayor Blount called him out of order. Brown urged the audience to go to city hall and get Kennedy’s letter.
The letter, dated May 9, from Kennedy to Dee Jones, the city’s human resources director, is as follows.
“Per your letter dated April 26, 2018, I am responding to you requesting a public hearing for the purpose of ‘Name Clearing’ relating to the ‘termination without good cause’ action taken by the Americus Mayor and City Council on April 25, 2018. It would also be my intention to have this document read in to the minutes of the Public Hearing by either yourself or the City Attorney as I would not plan to attend this Public Hearing.
“While there have also been some general comments about this same Public Hearing also serving as an ‘Appeal’ hearing, I respectfully disagree with that thought process. The action taken by the Mayor and Council was “Termination from the City without Good Cause.” With that being the reason for my termination as stated in your letter of April 26, 2018, I am not sure what I would be appealing as no real reasons have been provided. There is no apparent benefit to me or the process to appeal a “termination without good cause” action. The only thing that I would have to appeal or take exception to, would be the termination action as there are no reasons provided in the letter to support my termination.”
Two other individuals had signed up to speak at the meeting on agenda items. Both were regarding the second and final reading of the amendment to the Alcoholic Beverage License ordinance which would move the last call and all-clear times from 12:30 a.m. and 1 a.m. to 1:45 a.m. and 2 a.m.
First up was Rashad Patel, whose family owns and operates the Windsor Hotel in downtown Americus. Patel used his three allotted minutes to show video of the area of Jackson Street between the hotel and the Urban Lounge at midnight “when our guests are usually sleeping.” The video, which included audio, demonstrated the high noise level as people were yelling up and down the street to one another. In another video, a car was shown blaring its horn as it drove away.
When the mayor called three minutes, city clerk Paula Martin said time was not up yet due to some technical difficulties. Patel showed a small portion more.
The next speaker was Sharad Patel, owner of the Windsor Hotel, who also shared some video footage, showing three men urinating on the street. Patel thanked the mayor and council for taking the time to view the video. He said “this is downtown Americus.” He said he had given council and the mayor copies of a petition signed by all the downtown merchants asking to keep the time for alcohol sales as is, without amendment to a later time. “These are your constituents and they don’t want it changed,” he said. “It not only affects the hotel’s guests but all the residents living in downtown. When they wake up at night, this is what they see. Would you like to see this in your backyard?”
Patel thanked the police department for their assistance, “but what you saw [on the videos] was in their [police] presence. Can you imagine what it would be like without their presence? … I strongly urge you …” That ended Patel’s three minutes.
Again, Brown responded, who said the council’s job is to talk with all constituents. He said the videos concerned him. “We all have responsibilities for communicating, mayor and council, … public safety … I see a lot of issues with communications with the business people downtown, including Urban’s …”
Brown said he would make a motion to table the amendment until next month.
The first item on the agenda was the second and final reading of the alcohol ordinance amendment.
Brown made the motion to table the item until next month so he can compile more information. The motion was seconded by Juanita Wilson.
Council member Charles Christmas asked city attorney, Jimmy Skipper, how the tabling would affect the ordinance. Skipper said this was the second reading, and when it reappears on the June agenda setting meeting, then it can be voted on.
Christmas said he was concerned because last month there was “a rush to waive the second reading” and vote on the amendment and “all of sudden, backing up. I get confused sometimes when we rush things through instead of going through the whole process and taking the time to look at stuff like this and investigate.”
Brown responded to Christmas by saying that he’s not satisfied with all the facts yet. “I believe in investigating,” Brown said. “I believe in taking the time.”
Council member Daryl Dowdell said that from the beginning he didn’t vote for the change in hours when the new ordinance was adopted last year. He said Sharad Patel had told him that it’s not Urban, it’s the patrons and that Patel has no problem with Urban. He said this wasn’t being “rushed” but he still wanted it to go ahead. “It’s not the businesses; it’s the people,” Dowdell said. “I think police can help that. Police are on site but they’re not getting around.”
Brown again had comments. He said there are four bars downtown: Floyd’s (at the Windsor Hotel), J.J.’s Wings, Urban Lounge and the Seafood Center. He said he wants to table the vote so he can gather all the information on all the bars.
Council member Lou Chase said a decision needs to be made. “This was on the agenda last month,” she said. “We had some … business owners come forward … people from downtown came. They spoke about their concerns, and I concur, Mr. Dowdell, it’s the patrons … But this will affect all establishments downtown and all will have to abide by the same rules. If this continues for another hour [alcohol sales] … I just think a decision needs to be made. … This has been a concern. People are here. I’ve heard from different people … They’re not just my constituents. I serve everybody … I think it needs to be taken care of tonight.”
Brown again responded. “I’m not gonna put this council on the spot tonight,” he said. He wants numbers of police calls to each of the bars since Jan. 1 before making a decision.
Dowdell told Chase that he, too, has been talking to people about the issue. “There are people in my district right now that want the time changed also,” he said. “It goes hand and foot both ways.”
Dowdell said the owner of J.J. Wings has also had police calls about noise outside his business. “We can’t go pointing fingers at people,” he said, adding that he wants to see the cameras from the other side of the Windsor. “I’m quite sure that it’s not urinating on the street just on that street [Jackson] … The only videos we’re seeing is the ones pointed down on Jackson Street.”
Council member Kelvin Pless said the Windsor has its issue with noise too. He said that what happens once the people leave a bar is the problem and they can’t expect business owners to be policemen.
The mayor asked Americus Police Mark Scott how many officers he has on each shift, to which he responded “six” but they don’t currently have any full shifts. Blount suggested that if the ordinance is changed, maybe the business owners who’re having outside activities should be required to have police protection. “Not our officers because other calls have to be answered … “ he said. “There are not enough officers to cover this entire city if they’re all located downtown. Maybe what we have to do is create a special tax district … that if you’re going to stay open beyond 1 a.m. you hire your own officers to provide protection and safety downtown. Because we can’t sacrifice the safety of other people in this community to keep downtown quiet … ”
Brown said, “I’m not jumping from one side to the other. I respect all the downtown merchants.” He asked the police chief again how many officers on each shift. Scott said realistically four or five because of several vacancies. Brown suggested having a special detail to use downtown.
“Mr. Brown, our officers are so tired from working overtime,” that officers can’t be spared for a special detail, the police chief said. “There are already two officers downtown every night at closing to try to keep people quiet when they come out of bars.”
The police chief also said that on the video showing the car honking its horn, one of the two police officers chased it and made a DUI arrest. “So, we’re making charges where we can but we can’t arrest 30 or 40 people every night. They’re there to try to get people to be quiet when they come out. It’s just an overwhelming task.”
Brown continued questioning the chief about openings on the police force and asked when it will be at full force. Scott responded it would be about 12 weeks, if nobody else leaves.
Finally, Brown’s motion to table was seconded by Juanita Wilson. Wilson, Brown, Dowdell and Pless voted for the motion while Christmas and Chase voted against tabling.

More on this meeting in the next edition.