Ralston responds to Blue Ridge city manager issueNews June 22, 2021
BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Georgia Speaker of the House and District 7 Representative David Ralston (R – Blue Ridge) issued a response concerning the proposal of a city manager for Blue Ridge.
Ralston stated that he does not have “a position on the merits of this idea. [His] only objective is to be sure that a change in city government of this magnitude be made openly and based on the facts. It should not be based on personalities and rumors.” He’s also glad to discuss the issue.
In an FYN obtained email, Ralston informed citizen Richard Arnold that before December 30, 2020, no one had contacted him about changing city government. Mr. Balli was the individual who forwarded a letter and proposed bill. After investigating the matter further, the Speaker of the House uncovered that there had “been little to no public discussion prior to city council action” and two council members were absent at the time of the vote.
“A few days later, I met with Mr. Balli at the State Capitol and expressed concerns with the unknown cost of the proposal and its potential for expanding the size of government,” Ralston explained. “The more serious concern I had was the lack of public hearings. During the pre-pandemic portion of the 2020 session, opponents of the annexation proposal, then under consideration, argued forcefully for public hearings. Because I shared their desire to have more information, the annexation plan was tabled.”
He went on to further explain that the bill didn’t take into account taxpayer cost, salary, or benefits package.
According to Ralston, 92 cities in Georgia are comparable in size to Blue Ridge and only 35 have city managers. Those individuals’ annual salaries, excluding benefits, range from $50,000 to $90,000.
The proposed bill also lacked a job description.
“Candidly, I believe strongly that the residents of Blue Ridge deserve more information and the opportunity to have a public discussion before this bill moves forward,” Ralston remarked.
He ended with advising that proponents for a city manager “build a strong and clear consensus” and that the bill could be considered during the 2022 General Assembly.
Read the entire email below:
Thank you for your email dated June 16, 2021 regarding a proposal to implement a City Manager form of government for the City of Blue Ridge.
I apologize for not responding to the email you sent previously. However, I have no record of receiving such an email from you. In fact, but for City Attorney Balli forwarding yours of June 16, I would not have received it.
But I am happy to share with you my views on this issue.
On or about December 30, 2020, Mr. Balli did forward to me a letter and proposed bill. Prior to that date, I had not been contacted by anyone with the City of Blue Ridge government or any citizen expressing a desire for such a major change in city government. Upon investigation, I learned that there had been little to no public discussion prior to city council action and that two of the council members were absent when the vote was taken.
A few days later, I met with Mr. Balli at the State Capitol and expressed concerns with the unknown cost of the proposal and its potential for expanding the size of government.
The more serious concern I had was the lack of public hearings. During the pre-pandemic portion of the 2020 session, opponents of the annexation proposal, then under consideration, argued forcefully for public hearings. Because I shared their desire to have more information, the annexation plan was tabled.
It is my opinion that this proposal to change the form of government is at least equally deserving of public explanation and discussion.
The bill does not address basic but important questions: what will be the cost to the taxpayers of Blue Ridge? How much will the annual salary be? What will be the benefit package in terms of insurance, retirement, phone and vehicle and what is the total cost.
My research indicates that of 92 cities in Georgia comparable in size to Blue Ridge, only 35 have a city manager form of government. the annual salary (exclusive of any benefits) ranges from $50,000 to $90,000 per year.
Some of those cities report having to add additional support staff to assist the city manager.
Another issue not addressed is the lack of a job description. This is an interesting omission because the bill provides that this position would be that of the Chief Executive Officer who answers only to the City Council.
Candidly, I believe strongly that the residents of Blue Ridge deserve more information and the opportunity to have a public discussion before this bill moves forward.
Let me be very clear: I do not have a position on the merits of this idea. My only objective is to be sure that a change in city government of this magnitude be made openly and based on the facts. It should not be based on personalities and rumors.
I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish on behalf of the City since I have been Speaker. I continue to want only the very best for the place that is home to me.
The 2022 session of the General Assembly will convene on January 10, 2022. If the advocates for this plan wish to build a clear and strong consensus for this change the bill can be considered during that session.
Representative, House District 7
Speaker, Georgia House of Representatives
Charter changes and reopening of City playgroundCity Council, Community, Downtown Blue Ridge, News January 1, 2021
Blue Ridge, Ga. – Citizens could see a change in the way the City of Blue Ridge is managed after the city council voted on charter changes that would allow for the hire of a City Manger.
According to council member Rhonda Haight, the move to a city manager or a full-time mayor has been discussed among councils for several years. Haight stated that when looking at projected growth of the city, citizens would benefit by “making sure someone is here full-time to answer questions”.
Many municipalities in the area have this form of government, council member Mike Panter cited the cities of Jasper and Cumming to name a few. Council members also pointed to an example in Fannin County of the County Chairman holding a full-time position to oversee day-to-day operations.
“The council still has control over everything, including the budget, hiring and firing of the city manager,” Haight explained of the proposed move, saying that the only difference would be that a City Manager would not be an elected official and would therefore be able to be held accountable for their job performance.
“We know there is a need for leadership,” Haight said, adding that while council members are currently overseeing departments, most members hold other full-time jobs giving them less time to keep track of everyday business.
“Our job is really to set policy,” Council member Nathan Fitts stated agreeing with Haight : “I think there needs to be some accountability to the public and this is the only way we’re ever really going to get there.”
Fitts added, “I think this form of government takes power out of people who want to be in the position for power. The mayor doesn’t have power then. It puts the workload on someone who is being paid to do it.”
Council voted in favor, with Mayor Donna Whitener and Council member Robbie Cornelius absent, to send a Resolution to the Georgia State Legislature requesting that the city be able to move to a City Manager form of government.
The Resolution would need to pass on state level before any charter changes can take effect.
If enacted, there would be a transition period of 1 year taking place in 2021, with the official City Manager style government going into effect on Jan. 1, 2022.
The City Manager position would oversee and have executive power over all day-to-day activities including inner workings of all departments, tax collection, and grant availability.
CITY PLAYGROUND TO REOPEN
The City of Blue Ridge Street Department has been hard at work correcting the issue of drainage at the city’s playground.
With the corrections having been made, the council voted in favor of new padding and turf to be added and the playground be reopened to the public upon completion.
The issue of the drainage system was one that had previously halted some council members from moving forward with the new playground turf, concerned that there would be significant unforeseen expenses once corrections began to take place.
Panter, who wanted the playground corrected in a manner that would cut costs in the future, had been a strong proponent of moving to the padding and turf option rather than continuing with mulch.
“I do believe we have ample funding to do this at this point,” Haight said of moving forward with the project.
The company responsible for installing the padding and turf will have to do an initial inspection of the area and drainage system before their work would begin. The process is expected to begin as soon as next week.
Panter stated that he hopes the playground will be reopened by March 1, 2020, and could possibly be open sooner. Weather permitting and void of an unforeseen circumstance, once work has begun the process could be completed in as little as 3 weeks.
“It’s going to be done correctly. It’s going to be done right,” Panter said of moving forward with the padding and turf option.
The city has also received approximately $19,000 from a private donor for shades to be installed at the park. The city could have to spend an additional $5,000 in this area.
Moving forward with work on the playground, at a cost of $60,743.75, was voted unanimously in favor with Cornelius and Whitener absent.
Haight announces intent to run for MayorCity Council, Election, News December 4, 2020
Blue Ridge, Ga. – Rumors have already begun to circulate regarding who may or may not be running and for which seat they will seek in the 2021 Blue Ridge City Council / Mayor election.
One such rumor is that of current council member Rhonda Haight and her intent to seek the seat of Mayor in the upcoming election.
Haight confirmed with FetchYourNews that she does intend to qualify for the seat of Mayor next year.
Haight said that this is an option that she had contemplated for awhile, but recent city council meetings were what solidified her decision. Her hopes as Mayor would be to bring unity to the council so that city business could run more efficiently.
Council votes to stagger electionsCity Council, Downtown Blue Ridge, News December 2, 2020
Blue Ridge, Ga. – The Blue Ridge City Council made moves to bring about changes to the city charter which according to council member Rhonda Haight has not been updated since 1989.
While it has been discussed in previous years, council members voted unanimously to begin the process of staggering elections for city council and mayor.
Currently all five city council seats, along with mayor, go up for election simultaneously after a four year term. This leaves the possibility of all seats being filled with newly elected officials at the same time. Council members agreed that not having an experienced member to guide newcomers is a vulnerability for the operations of the city.
“I can’t name another city who does it like we do,” Haight said of the city’s current election practices, “Even the county, they stagger their terms.”
While all changes to a city’s charter must be passed on the state level, council members voted in favor of sending a Resolution to the capital for consideration.
This resolution would stagger the terms of council and mayor in the following manner by dividing seats into two elections. One election would be for Mayor and council seats 2 and 4. Another election would be for council seats 1, 3 and 5. The elections would take place in off years of each other.
Council member Mike Panter also presented the idea of reducing the council size altogether: “Looking at where we are growing, with our budget, how our budget’s grown over the last five to 10 years and how projected growth is, I’m not sure that we shouldn’t go to three council members, a mayor and then a city manager.”
Panter cited the Fannin County Board of Commissioners (BOC) as an example, stating that the county budget is almost $5,000,000 more than the city budget and that the BOC is able to operate with two part time commissioners and a full time commission chair.
“I think that it would put more responsibility on the councilmen,” Panter said of switching to a three person council.
Council member Nathan Fitts said that he while he mostly agrees with Panter, he had spoken with a few citizens and had not found anyone in favor of the major change: “Citizens need input on that.”
“We have a hard enough time just meeting with five and that is an issue,” Haight shared her opinion on the reduced council and explained why she felt the change would not be good for the city.
Haight said there are many times where items need to be discussed between meetings and with the current five member council, council members can reach out to each other to talk about issues: “If you have only three you can’t do that because then you’re breaking the Sunshine Law”
The Georgia Sunshine Law states that members of a board (or council) cannot speak privately to one another if a quorum (majority vote) is present. With the five member council this means that three members would have to be present in the discussion to violate the Sunshine Law.
With a three member council, however, two members constitute a quorum meaning that members of a three person board may not speak on official matters outside a public meeting.
Haight feels that a better alternative would be to keep the five member council but move the city toward a City Manager style of government or compensate the seat of Mayor to a full time position.
“City manager government is the most prominent form of government according to GMA (Georgia Municipal Association),” Haight said of the suggestion, pointing out that a city manager would be trained to supervise departments and all working aspects of the city. This would free up council to vote on decisions without having to oversee individual departments.
Mayor Donna Whitener suggested a town hall meeting to get citizen input on these proposed changes.
Haight pointed out that 2021 would be an election year so the changes need to be “done quickly” adding, “That’s why I don’t even know if we have time for a town hall meeting. Even if we have a town hall meeting they don’t understand the inner workings like we do.”
Haight made a motion for the City Attorney James Balli to draft a Resolution for the City of Blue Ridge to move to a City Manager form of government but the motion failed with council members Robbie Cornelius, Harold Herndon and Mike Panter in opposition.