BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – Blue Ridge City Council met Tuesday, March 13, with a number of action and discussion items on its agenda. Headlining those items were an adoption of a city open records policy, potential improvements and repairs to City Hall and residential property flooding near Ada Street.
Regarding the open records policy, City Attorney James Balli stated the city is governed by the state Open Records Act, which preempts any city ordinance or policy. The attorney explained the Georgia Municipal Association advises all member municipalities to adopt an official opens records policy.
“(The policy) provides more explanation,” Balli added. “It doesn’t change any rules, which we can’t do that.”
Balli further explained the policy would allow “faster access to routine documents to citizens and the press” and that citizens of the city would be given priority on requests but that all requests would be fulfilled in a timely manner. Balli told the council the city previously did not have an official open records policy. He also stated while the state Open Records Act does not require a request in written form, a written request utilizing the city’s open records request form is encouraged and required to ensure the fulfillment of requests to those making the requests.
According to the city open records policy, from the time an open records request is made, the city has three business days to determine whether the requested information is subject to disclosure or redacted disclosure and to either produce the information upon payment of any applicable fees or provide the person requesting records with a timeline of when the information will be produced if said information is not immediately available.
The policy further states, “If the requested record is not subject to disclosure, or full disclosure, the City Attorney (or his or her designee) shall identify in writing to the requestor the provision of law that makes all or part of a record exempt from disclosure. The City Attorney’s decision regarding exemption or partial exemption of a record shall be the final decision.”
The Georgia Open Records Act O.C.G.A. § 50-18-70 defines public and open records as “all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, computer based or generated information, data, data fields, or similar material prepared and maintained or received by an agency. Public records also mean such items received or maintained by a private person or entity in the performance of a service or function for or on behalf of an agency and such items transferred to a private person or entity for storage or future governmental use.”
A budget allotment of up to $10,000 was approved for a kitchen remodel project at City Hall. Finance Director Alicia Stewart explained city Clerk of Court and Office Manager Barbie Gerald had requested the amount to cover costs for cabinets, counters, hardware, a sink, a faucet, grout, tile, mirrors, an oven hood and labor. Stewart added the estimate for the these items stood at $6,850.31 and did not include appliances. “I think Barbie (Gerald) wanted a little higher than ($6,850.31) just in case there was something that came up,” Stewart said of the potential additional allotment.
During the approval vote, Councilman Ken Gaddis voted against the allotment and Councilman Nathan Fitts was initially undecided, stating at one point that he had seen some repurposed items listed on social media recently that could alleviate costs to the city and also admitting he had not reviewed information on the materials. After a second vote was taken, however, Fitts voted in favor of the allotment. Councilman Harold Herndon was not present for the meeting.
The council later discussed whether to repair the overhang roof of the drive-through area outside City Hall or to demolish it entirely. The roof of the overhang and a portion of the main building’s roof was damaged in an April 2017 storm and the city recently received an insurance claims check for $20,165 for the damage to the overhang. Last month, the council weighed repair options but ultimately agreed repairs to the overhang would not be frugal given the city’s hopes to eventually adapt that side of City Hall and the adjoining parking lot into a two-story parking deck.
A suggestion was made to demolish the overhang and erect an outdoor drop box for any payments to the city. Fitts questioned where the city fire engine would be parked if the overhang was demolished and the idea to approach the county about possibly storing the engine at the forthcoming public safety complex on Windy Ridge Road was mentioned. Mayor Donna Whitener further explained the city is hoping to still receive further insurance claims funds for the damage suffered to the main building’s roof. She also stated the council would have to decide between repairing the roof with shingles or with metal roofing.
Ultimately, the item was tabled to allow the council more time to gather further information.
In public commentary, Ben Kissel, a city resident, addressed the council concerning recent flooding to his property as well as neighboring properties off of Ada Street. In his statement, Kissel explained the flooding issue was a direct result of a collapsed pipe on his property and related the collapse to an artificial concentration of large amounts of water funneling into his property from developments approved by the city. Kissel also noted before the pipe collapse, flooding had never been an issue on his property, but during the month of February, his property had flooded three times.
“Therefore, I feel it has become the city’s responsibility being that we nor the property owners before us have ever been compensated for these actions,” Kissel stated.
Kissel said in discussions with the mayor and city council members during the past year, he and his wife, Natalie Kissel, “have been given the runaround” concerning the issue. Infrastructure, Kissel stated, was a top priority mentioned in nearly every candidate’s campaign platforms during last year’s elections for city council, at times, “even citing my property in your campaigns.”
“But what it really comes down to is your actual priorities. Three months into your terms, and I have seen the approval to supply water to a cherry picked development (Staurolite Mountain) outside of the city limits,” Kissel continued. “I have heard that the price tag for this venture is upward of $50,000. That is almost 8 percent of the total cost to fix the entire drainage infrastructure to our city. That is 8 percent that the residents and business owners will have to wait even longer for you to come up with.”
Kissel went on to cite other recently discussed potential expenditures, such as the $10,000 allotment, approved earlier in the meeting, for the kitchen remodel and a sound system for the downtown area.
After this, Kissel presented the city with three options: fix the issue themselves, allow the Kissels to fix the issue and “the third option, and your most expensive, is to continue to do what you have done and that is nothing.”
Kissel also presented the council with a copy of the Georgia Nuisance Law, which requires land owners, developers, municipalities and counties to protect the rights of adjoining property owners from the unnatural effects of land development. “The city is in direct violation of that law,” Kissel added.
Later, Councilman Gaddis explained the intricacies involved in creating a drainage area and suggested that the city’s engineering firm, Carter & Sloope, investigate the drainage issue immediately. “I would love to get this done, and I think we should get Carter & Sloope on this as soon as possible,” Gaddis added. “I just want to apologize to Mr. and Mrs. Kissel here for this issue.”
Mayor Whitener reminded everyone that the previous council had already approved for Carter & Sloope to conduct engineering studies in the drainage area near Ada Street last year but added that the council had not yet approved for any work to take place.
Near the end of the discussion, City Attorney Balli told the council, “For the record, I hear what the council is saying and I don’t necessarily agree with some of the legal opinions as to who may or may not be responsible … We go by your decisions, not mine.”
On Thursday, Ben Kissel confirmed action was being taken from the city council to resolve the issue and representatives from Carter & Sloope are slated to visit the drainage area near Ada Street next week.