“Oh! What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive” ~Sir Walter Scott
Imagine my shock when I showed up to the Gordon County Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday night and some concerned citizens told me about some, ummm, interesting non-agenda items that were presented the night before at the Calhoun City Council meeting, items that the Council will debate in the coming weeks. Full disclosure: Because the agenda for Monday night’s Calhoun City Council meeting seemed to be nothing to write home about, I decided to sit the meeting out; Mayor Jimmy Palmer wasn’t even going to be in attendance due to his grandson playing in the college National Championship Game that night. My plan was to call Paul Worley with the City of Calhoun for an update on Tuesday for reporting purposes.
But oh, what tangled webs this City Council weaves; and leave it to the current Calhoun City Council to play out the equivalent of “covering our stupid mistakes” during their meeting Monday night. After learning of some of the items mentioned in the Calhoun City Council meeting, I called the City and requested THEIR official recording. Yes...in case you were not aware, not only do we record the meetings, but the City does as well.
I’ve heard a couple of times this Council mention their high level of intelligence, and while that may be so, there seems to be absolutely no common sense floating around during their meetings these days. So, as I listened to the non-agenda part of the meeting, I came up with some common sense opinions and questions concerning these plans for the City Council in 2017.
Imagine my jaw dropping when I heard Councilman David Hammond announce, “We (the Council) are going to be looking at ethics reform for elected officials to fully obtain openness and complete transparency.” How ironic that the bastion of openness and complete transparency is the one who met privately with one of the Calhoun Times columnists and pushed his “real reasons” why he voted the way he did concerning the City’s organizational restructuring in late 2016, reasons he never disclosed during any of the regular City Council Meetings when the discussions on the organizational restructuring were taking place.
It appears to me that maybe some council members are feeling the heat for what seems to be self-serving decisions and votes. My question is, if we are going to look at ethics reform, in addition to making sure there are no backdoor meetings with selected residents concerning City votes, can we also do something with the council member that has personal interests in serving alcohol? Yes, yes...I hear most of you when you say, “But the law that an elected City official or employee and their immediate family can’t have whole or partial beneficial interests in the sale of alcohol is so old, they should be able to be able to do so. The City is so far behind and old-fashioned.”
I am not saying whether or not the ordinance (law) is old or not, old fashioned or not or should even be a law or not; that’s a debate for another time. What I’m saying is there is a law that is not being adhered to. Jackie Palazzolo, the council member in question, stated, “It is my Constitutional right to make a living,” in a 2016 Council meeting in response to having interests in alcohol sales. And City Attorney George Govignon, during that same meeting, stood up and acknowledged, “It was brought to my attention,” admitting he’s known about the ordinance and that the council member has a connection to alcohol sales. What I am saying is, basically, the City of Calhoun is admitting they are breaking their own law. Shouldn’t that ordinance have been amended as soon as Palazzolo was elected? And because they have not enforced their ordinance, can the City suffer repercussions from not enforcing it?
For example, can former family members of City employees who were denied alcohol sales licenses take legal action against the City of Calhoun because they were not allowed to have any interests in the sale of alcohol, but a current elected official is allowed to?
Another example, have you ever heard of the State of Georgia’s Dram Shop Act? Well, simply put, it states if an intoxicated person is served alcohol and, as a result, causes injury in a drunk-driving accident in Georgia, the victim can bring a claim against the server, whether a shop, eating or drinking establishment, or a homeowner under Georgia Dram Shop liability laws. So, again, using common sense, and please stay with me here... if someone left an event after-party at this particular council member’s establishment (that serves alcohol and openly promotes the selling of alcohol), and the someone is in an extremely intoxicated state and wrecks and causes serious injury, according to the Dram Shop Act, the council member’s establishment can face a legal claim, but, since the City of Calhoun has not enforced its own law with this council member, can the City of Calhoun face a legal claim as well?
I don’t have the answers, and those are investigative stories for another day, but why, if there’s even a slim chance that either of those scenarios could play out, would the City knowingly chance letting a council member not be in compliance with a city ordinance? Why didn’t the City Attorney demand a change to the City employee/official alcohol ordinance as soon as he found out the council member and/or her immediate family had special interests in the sale of alcohol?
I am in agreement with ethics reform one hundred percent, but shouldn’t we have thought about ethics before we had backdoor meetings with citizens concerning votes and letting a council member seemingly not be in compliance with a local law?
Another part of the non-agenda items that might cause tails to wag is adding additional council members to the mix. “We are looking real closely at expanding this Council from four members to six members,” said Hammond. “A lot of communities have gone up in size as they’ve gone up in population.”
While the Council has pointed out before how much intelligence they have, I must point out now that there is a lot of common sense lacking. Why would a city of approximately 15 square miles split into six districts? If my math serves me correctly, that is a district for every 2.5 square miles. As of 2013 U.S. Census numbers, there were 15,899 residents in the City of Calhoun; that is up only 225 people over 2010 U.S. Census numbers (in three years, the city population grew less than two percent).
At this time, the City of Calhoun, per Gordon County Board of Elections, has 7830 registered voters. So around half of the population of the City are registered voters, but not necessarily active voters.
Let’s compare that to the Gordon County Board of Commissioners, who is split into five districts per approximately 358 square miles, which is a district for every (approximate) 60 square miles. According to U.S. Census numbers, the population of Gordon County in 2013 was 55,757; up only 558 people over 2010 numbers (so, in three years, the population of Gordon County grew right around one percent, according to U.S. Census numbers ). There are 31,178 registered voters in Gordon County, both active and inactive, and that includes the 7830 registered voters in Calhoun.
So, where is all of this population growth that has been mentioned in the current meeting, and previous meetings, to warrant moving a 15-square-mile city to six council members instead of the current four? How would the City of Calhoun find enough qualified candidates to run for a particular district in what would be the equivalent of a 2.5-square-mile radius (at this time, the seats are considered at-large)? How does wasting the time, and money, to debate adding two seats on the City Council and taking the measure to the State Legislature benefit the City of Calhoun? I can’t see that there are benefits, but then again, I’m just using common sense. I have no idea what could have inspired such talk of changing the City’s charter, but my mind goes to, could this be a sneaky way of making sure council members are a shoo-in for election? If the City is split into small voting districts, it would be hard to find qualified competition within the districts to run for office. Also, wouldn’t it be possible that adding districts to the City Council would dilute any perceived power away from the position of Mayor of Calhoun?
And finally, don’t even get me started on the filming of the City Council meetings, so, as Hammond proclaimed, “They can hear it from our own mouths and understand exactly what we are talking about.” Our recordings, and reporting, on the City Council are pretty accurate, I’d say 100 percent since we take every word that is said and put them in our stories. And since the videos will be supplied by the same Council who are having problems with transparency, and are not going to be live-streamed but instead put up after the meeting, my worry is- what content will actually be presented in the videos? Transparency indeed.
Again, these are just a few of my observations from the events that transpired at the latest City Council meeting; I am no expert and I do not have all of the answers, but something seems very iffy to me. Lesson learned this week: You can’t leave the Calhoun City Council alone for one meeting without all hell breaking loose.
Oh, Calhoun City Council, what tangled webs you weave.
Brandi Moorehead Owczarz is the managing editor of the Calhoun Times. Her hobbies include working, eating (a lot), sleeping and picking apart the stupid acts of the Calhoun City Council. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her on Facebook at facebook.com/brandi.owczarz.