Powers, duties of city council members discussed
By Stephanie Johns
The Madison City Council held a three-hour retreat at the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission (NEGRC) in Athens Monday morning.
City Attorney Joe Reitman guided councilmen through the city’s 21-page charter with he and his colleague, Jim Burgess, answering questions for councilmen as needed.
NEGRC Executive Director Jim Dove and Executive Assistant Mott Beck also were present during the retreat.
They discussed the powers and duties of the city manager, mayor, mayor pro tem and council members.
The charter has the city manager administer all city affairs, including the police and fire departments. This person is to attend all council meetings and faithfully execute the city’s ordinances.
Mayor Bruce Gilbert noted that if there are less than six months on a term, the mayor and council appoints a successor.
Burgess noted several reasons that could prompt a suspension, including violation of oath of office, conflicts of interest, committing fraud, and violation of financial power.
Councilman Whitey Hunt asked about suspension of a court judge or legal counsel.
City Manager David Nunn pointed out that legal counsel is a city employee. Reitman agreed and said that he is “at will.”
Councilman Michael Naples asked about suspension of the city manager and wanted to know if someone would be appointed in his place.
Their charter does have provisions for that, according to Reitman.
Dove said that it is ultimately on the council.
Naples then asked if the city manager was removed, who would take care of his responsibilities. He noted that the charter did not say.
Reitman said that ultimately it would be up to the “reasonable discretion” of the mayor and council.
It is a good idea to consider a plan for succession, said Dove.
Reitman asked Nunn if there were any city employees not under his direction. Nunn said no.
Gilbert asked what made people adhere to the policy.
“The oath of office,” Reitman said.
Burgess advised council members to utilize the city manager as opposed to directly assigning tasks to city employees.
Every council member has rights as a citizen, said Reitman, and that as a member of the city council they have a duty to bring issues forward to the attention of the city manager.
Burgess told council they can speak to city employees but should exercise a certain amount of constraint and common sense.
There can be the perception of an implied order when the mayor or council members contact city employees directly regarding an issue, Nunn said.
Reitman recommended that the mayor and council members contact Nunn and if the issue does not get handled, they can bring the issue before the council.
“It’s a matter of going through channels, going to David Nunn, and working as a team to try to address issues,” Reitman said.
Gilbert suggested they use e-mail to communicate their concerns to Nunn, who in turn can forward the e-mail along to the right city employee and/or respond via e-mail with updates as needed.
“If constituents come up later, we can look at the record and tell them,” he said.
Reitman reminded those present that they need to use care when sending e-mails pertaining to personnel and potential litigation.
Documents shared via e-mail can be requested by members of the press or the public.
There are three reasons that a council can go into a closed session: pending litigation, personnel, and property.
DiLetto shared his frustration with the “creeping government” and the need to go through “so much massaging.”
“I’ve been faced with several embarrassing situations with constituents because things didn’t get done,” he said.
Reitman said it is important for them to “row the same direction.”
“We work for constituents and have to do what’s best for city members at large,” he said. “It’s not a constituent run government; it’s representative.”
Gilbert asked if policing is their duty.
“If I sit here and let this go, they’ll be in more trouble tomorrow,” he said.
Reitman replied that it is their job to bring an issue to the right place.
“Let someone who knows what they’re doing do it,” he said.
Nunn said, “We always strive to do better. You can’t always fix it yourself. Sometimes it’s a lengthy process.”
They then segued into a discussion of the mayor’s duties, noting that the mayor is the official spokesman for the city.
Dove said another thing they need to be aware of is the difference between a councilman’s personal position versus his political position.
Reitman agreed that they should proceed cautiously. He added that even when a councilman votes against an ordinance they still have a duty to uphold the ordinance and to sign documents pertaining to the ordinance.
The mayor may participate in a debate but can only vote in the instance of a tie. Also, the mayor cannot make a motion or second a motion.
A councilman may second a motion if only to get the topic on the table for discussion. If a councilman has a firm moral or ethical conviction, he may abstain; however, this counts as a no vote.
Nunn pointed out that if a councilman abstains from a discussion and subsequent vote, it will count as a no vote even though they did not take part in the discussion.
Burgess said that a councilman may abstain for moral reasons, and if they are uninformed or uncomfortable about a topic.
Reitman said that a councilman’s constituents may want their councilman to vote. He added that he will look into this a bit more and will send them research regarding abstaining. He also will look at recusal language.
Comments – either from council members or members of the public – should be addressed to the mayor during council meetings.
Regarding the mayor pro tem, Councilman Fred Perriman serves in this role.
Gilbert said that the mayor should have a reason for being absent.
Naples asked if the mayor should recuse himself if the mayor is conflicted about the topic up for a vote.
Hunt pointed out that that would take an additional councilman out of the voting because neither the mayor nor the mayor pro tem if serving in the mayor’s stead may vote.
Reitman said it all comes back to good faith.
“Try to have a full body at all times,” he said.
Burgess recommended that the council consider removing the salaries from the charter.
“Keep the charter as general as you can,” he said.
Nunn agreed, “The numbers get out of date.”
Reitman said that it would require an amendment, which in turn would require public notice, to take out the numbers.
He added that council members have a responsibility to look to the greater good.
Reitman said he has a strong preference to harmonize the language regarding “conflicts of interest” so that the charter and state law are in line. It was noted that a conflict of interest could void a contract.
As to the use of public property such as city issued iPads, Reitman suggested that they ask themselves if the use of the property interferes with or is complimentary to its primary intended use.
Reitman shared his preference to have agenda items a week in advance unless there is a timely issue that requires attention.
Hunt brought up a question pertaining to authorities.
“If we can appoint someone to an authority, can’t we remove them, too?” he said.
Naples said that they can.
Naples said that some Downtown Development Authorities are not subject to the council; they can act on their own.
Nunn said that the city allocates money to the DDA and that the DDA in turn signs all of its own checks.
As they continued through the charter Gilbert asked if the city could bill out property taxes twice a year.
“December 20 is always a hard time for everybody,” he said, adding that they could bill out half of the previous year’s bill at that time.
Reitman asked what the impact on revenue flow to operations would be and Nunn replied that it would make it better.
Nunn added that the city utilizes the county for collections.
Towards the end of the meeting Reitman said he would use the ‘Track Changes’ feature in Microsoft Word to make changes to the charter. He then would plan to have the charter with corrections on the agenda four weeks out.
He shared that while there is no particular time requirement in which to review a charter, it is “just good to review it periodically.”
Printed in the October 25, 2012 edition