AG: meeting was illegal

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

Plenty of legal news has been made at Stockbridge City Hall in the last several days - hearings, lawsuits, settlements and word from the state Attorney General’s office that a recent meeting was likely illegal.

The city has settled its ongoing lawsuit with former mayor Lee Stuart and paid $59,999 of his legal fees. This action was approved at the May 11 City Council meeting by a 3-2 vote, with Anthony Ford and Robin Buschman voting against.

As for a suit involving the current mayor, it was confirmed that the city paid nearly $14,800 in legal fees on behalf of Tim Thompson, who sued several former Downtown Develop-ment Authority members personally a few months ago in an attempt to get them thrown off that board. Neither Thompson’s initial legal action nor the reimbursement of the legal fees included a vote of the City Council.

City manager Michael Harris said the council “authorized its legal team to bring a legal action to remove three members of the DDA who were wrongly appointed. Under Georgia law, a quo warranto action to remove a public official who wrongly holds public office requires that the lawsuit be initiated by at least one resident of the city. Accordingly, the council authorized the city’s legal team to bring the action in the name of the mayor.”

The May 11 hearing on whether to remove Buschman from the council lasted well past midnight with no resolution, but a complaint filed with the Attorney General’s office relating to one of the charges brought at that hearing could impact that entire proceeding.

Buschman, the only council member who is also a DDA board member, voted March 30 to void actions taken at a March 17 DDA meeting which was convened on 30 minutes notice after several new members were sworn in. At that time DDA executive director J.T. Williams said the March 17 meeting was convened illegally and he urged members not to attend so as to avoid being sanctioned later by the state.

The city charged that Buschman’s March 30 voted was "incompatible with the proper discharge of your official duties as a sitting council member in violation of Section 2.16a and/or your oath of office.”

However, a complaint filed by former council member Kathy Gilbert brought about an investigation by the Attorney General’s office, and the Times obtained a copy of an email sent last week to Williams from Assistant Attorney General Amanda Jones.

“Through our investigation, we have found evidence to substantiate some of the allegations in the original complaint, including that an illegal meeting of the SDDA was held on March 17, 2015,” Jones wrote. “In situations such as this, the Attorney General will attempt to negotiate a Memorandum of Understand-ing with the offending agency, outlining the violation(s), and ensuring future compliance with the Act.”

The city has not commented on this development, but officials at City Hall said last month that their actions in calling the March 17 meeting were legal and appropriate.

In making inquiries last week to city manager Michael Harris about various city issues, the Times learned that Stockbridge has retained a public relations firm for assistance. A response to several questions was provided Friday by Mitch Leff of Leff & Associates, who said he was working with Harris and providing the information on his behalf.

Harris confirmed Monday that Leff & Associates has been contracted for a three-month period ending July 31 at a cost of no more than $15,000. The firm will assist the city in communicating with citizens and the media more effectively since the city does not employ a communications official on its staff.

Leff confirmed that the Buschman matter “was not closed. A decision is still pending.” He also confirmed the financial terms of the Stuart settlement.

As for an update on the investigation into Thompson after his outburst at a meeting a month ago, the question was posed to both Harris and Thompson via email about whether Thompson had taken steps to fulfill any of the stipulations put forth by the council in its censure vote, such as requiring the mayor to being some type of anger management program and update the council on his progress within 30 days.

“In response to the City Council’s request, I want to assure them and the citizens of Stockbridge that I have indeed taken their advice to heart,” Thompson said Monday. “I have met several times in the last month with a trained counselor. We have discussed the issues in question, what led up to them and how I can deal with them in the future.”