City council retreat measures gains, sets goals
By Tara DeRock Mahoney
Senior Staff Writer
Two years ago, Madison city council members sat down to a retreat at Hard Labor Creek State Park with a closely-typed, five-page laundry list of topics of interest to the city, everything from traffic and water to health benefits and meeting protocols. Each year since, the council has held a retreat to go over that same long list and talk about accomplishments and the need for new goals.
“We want to talk about...preserving and enhancing our community,” said Mayor Tom DuPree, at the 2008 retreat at the Susie B. Agnes Hotel in Bostwick last Friday.
Water, water, nowhere
One of the first topics of discussion was the ongoing drought in the state of Georgia and how it might affect development in the area.
“We may have to make some decisions regarding industry,” said DuPree.
City Manager David Nunn said that up to now, there have not been any problems with permitting new industrial water users.
“Industries today...they just don't use as much water,” said Nunn. “They recycle it, recapture it, and reuse it...they're not huge consumers.”
As for the option to serve residential customers, the city doesn't have a lot of choices. “If they're within the city limits, if it's residential development, the city doesn't have much choice,” said Nunn. “[The council] controls the land use, and [the council] sets the density.”
At the suggestion of council member Whitey Hunt, the city will review the draft water contracts that it signs with new industries to make sure that those industries cannot demand more water than the city is prepared to provide.
Slum lords need
Council members were encouraged by progress toward eliminating sub-standard housing in Madison. Two years ago, both DuPree and council member Michael Naples set as campaign goals the desire to visit every home in the city while stumping from door to door. Both were appalled by the conditions under which they said some city residents lived. And in a number of cases, those residents were living in rental properties which were not being maintained by the owners.
“Recently, after two years, we were able to move on landlords who permitted these conditions,” said Naples, referring to a recent occasion in which the city was finally successful in taking a homeowner inadequately maintaining rental properties to court. “These houses will not be re-habited until improvements are made,” said Naples. In the past, some renters were fearful of complaining about their living conditions lest they be evicted or suffer a raised rent. Naples said that in the recent city court case, the judge made it clear that such actions would not be tolerated.
“We have some landlords who allow conditions...that are disgusting. I'm just telling it like it is,” said DuPree. “There is a standard below which we cannot allow our fellow citizens to live.”
In celebration of its court victory, the city has plans to aggressively enforce substandard housing laws in the future.
Elected officials, unite!
The city discussed an oft-recurring topic, that of improving relations with Morgan County Commissioners. “I think we've made a lot of progress here,” said DuPree. Council members hope to revive a plan to have regular, joint meetings with commissioners in an effort to enhance communication and foster cooperation on city-county projects. City officials also discussed an idea to organize an annual meeting to which every elected official in the county is invited, including city council members, county commissioners, tax officials, and school board members.
“So much of what we do can benefit from sharing information with other elected officials,” said DuPree.
Transportation moving along
The council plans to form a task force in the near future to discuss ways in which the city can realize recommendations made in last year's long-awaited city-wide traffic study.
“We've got a plan, folks; it's time for us to use it,” said DuPree, reiterating remarks made by Naples at a council meeting earlier this month. “It's time to take action.”
The council also discussed another perennial topic, that of a potential entrance to the Madison City Cemetery on West Washington Street. It's a sore spot with some residents that it's all-too-easy to get stuck in the western half of the downtown cemetery when a train is on the railroad tracks.
“We haven't given up on this idea,” said Nunn, although he said that putting in an entrance is still much more difficult than it seems. In some places, an entrance is impossible because of grave sites in the area; in other areas, the city lacks all of the right-of-way it needs to construct a second entrance.
The council noted that a number of improvements to the city's airport have been made in recent years, and other potential improvements have been noted in an airport plan.
Construction projects abound
Council members noted that substantial progress has been made on the topic of impact fees for the community; a consultant is currently working with the city on the possibility of developing such an ordinance in the future, and community members are participating in task forces on the topic, as required by law. Impact fees could substantially impact the city's ability to provide infrastructure in the fact of new construction and development in future decades.
In other construction news, city officials noted that there are a number of large projects currently in the works in Madison, including the new water reclamation facility, the new pipeline to the facility, the new town park, and the new municipal building being erected on Fairgrounds Extension.
“It's probably as busy a construction period as this city has ever had—certainly, dollar-wise it is,” said DuPree.
Open, ethical leadership
Toward the end of the morning, DuPree commented on the type of open, representative, ethical, efficient government that the City of Madison has.
“I know we started off kind of bumpy,” he said, apparently referring to his first few months in office in which he instituted a review of the charter of the City of Madison, among other changes. “But I really think we do a good job of this. Can we do a better job? Sure,” said DuPree. “We're all called to be leaders, and we all have different backgrounds; I learned there's a big difference between leadership as an elected offical and leadership of a corporate entity. In the political world, it truly is about building consensus...I didn't really appreciate that.”
DuPree asked the council if they were interested in considering health benefits for elected officials in lieu of a pay raise.
“My sense of it is the amount of time required by mayor and council members today versus seven or eight years ago is significantly more because there's a lot more activity, a lot more different things going on, a lot more exposure,” said DuPree. “The one thing that might make some sense is providing health insurance for each one of the members, should they want it. That doesn't mean we have to by any means, but it's something I want to get your input on."
“I just don't know how well it would be received by the public,” said Naples. “Inasmuch as it's considered, I don't know if people would call it a part-time job. Most places of employment, if you go beyond 20 hours, they give you medical benefits. People are going to say, 'Well, is each council member putting in 20 hours a week?'...I could just see there could be some finger-pointing.”
Prayer on the agenda again?
DuPree also took the opportunity of the informal retreat to once again ask council members if they would consider opening council meetings with a prayer.
“We discussed [opening council meetings with prayer] at considerable length,” said DuPree. “I'll take the initiative of broaching that subject again...I'd be very grateful if we could find it in our hearts to open, officially, our meetings with prayer...as does the House of Representatives, the United States Senate and the United States Supreme Court.”
“I think if it's working well the way it is now, we probably ought to leave it the way it is,” said council member Connie Booth.
“I concur with Connie,” said Naples. “Why invite possible controversy or lawsuit?...and it certainly did generate a lot of controversy...I respect your religious convictions, Tom, and we all have them, but I think this is the best way, the way we are proceeding right now.”