Land purchase stands; citizens promise ethics charges

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

The vote has been taken and it was not retaken. But the issue may not be over.

Some McDonough residents and merchants have promised to file ethics charges against City Council member Gail Notti, who leaves office in less than two months, over her participation in the city’s recent $300,000-plus purchase of property adjacent to her house for the western end of Alexander Park and to provide an entrance off Jonesboro Road.

Last week Notti and council member Sandra Vincent defended the move, for which Kamali Varner and Rufus Stewart also voted in the affirmative. Craig Elrod and Roger Pruitt, along with Mayor Billy Copeland, voted no.

The vote actually took place at the Nov. 5 council workshop meeting, two days after Notti lost her re-election bid. The item was added to the agenda at that meeting, prompting an outcry from locals who felt it was done to prevent citizens from knowing in advance.

“It is a shame that they have such a low regard for taxpayer sales tax monies,” wrote Annette O’Banion the next day in a Facebook post. “They ask you to approve SPLOST and then use the monies for personal pet projects. This park has an over $55M price tag, we have spent to date over $7M and on our way to $10M pretty quickly. Today, there is no accountable way to watch spending, to provide a timeline of completion nor is there a way to pay for annual maintenance costs (which has to come from the general fund, not SPLOST).”

Residents and merchants came out en masse to the Nov. 16 regular council meeting urging a reconsideration vote, which could only come if one of the four who initially voted in favor of the purchase made a motion to do so.

“Will the four of you who voted for this ask for another vote?” asked Jea Gackowski in her remarks to the council. “From an ethics perspective we don’t understand why we don’t get phone calls back and why you can vote on property that, quite frankly, Gail, is right next to your house.”

Gackowski made it clear that ethics violations “on several counts” would be filed with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office if the vote were not reversed.

“Please don’t lecture us,” she said. “Please revote this.”

Shelly DeLisle gave a detailed presentation of the overall park plan and recent developments, in which she said she sees “an obvious conflict of interest” on Notti’s part. She noted that Notti has been the “champion” of the plan, deeply involved in every aspect and its biggest supporter since it was introduced in 2006.

While there is little to show at the park itself for the $8 million or more that has been invested so far, according to DeLisle, the property next door is a different story.

“Councilwoman Notti’s home is now surrounded by protected park land, all of which was purchased by the city,” she said. “It is clearly evident that she stands to gain personally.”

As for the decision to vote at the workshop and not two weeks later at the regular council meeting with advance notice given, she added, “The timing of this vote feels a bit shady.”

Reading from the “Ethics, Conflict of Interest and Abuse of Office” section of Handbook for Georgia Mayors and Council Members, DeLisle related the following quote: “It is improper and illegal for a member of a municipal council to vote on any question brought before the council in which he or she is personally interested.”

She said she has been stymied often in her attempts to research the issue, being told by city officials that she would have to file numerous open records request and pay for the materials she received. Currently there is very little information readily available to the public on a plan approved nearly a decade ago under a completely different administration at an estimated cost of $52 million, she added.

Copeland said that he thought the reconsideration vote was a good idea in light of what was said at the meeting. He asked twice for a motion in that direction but was met with silence both times.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this issue dies,” he said, moving on to the next agenda item.

The issue was addressed again later in the meeting. Gackowski had asked that there be no lecture, but she and her fellow citizens got two - one from Notti and one from Vincent.

Notti began by referring to “comments based on our citizens’ lack of information,” at which time many in the audience erupted in laughter. She pressed on, saying that all of her colleagues as well as the city manager and city attorney “can speak to this issue” and that the property has been “thoroughly vetted.”

She did not waver in her position that the land purchase was necessary.

“The [Jonesboro Road] entrance was vital because the property does not allow construction of a road from any other area,” she said, adding that environmental concerns in other areas and DOT issues contributed to this stance. “This community deserves the ability to have such amenities and availability for its citizens. It’s about quality of life.”

Saying that there were many other factors for which there was not enough time to discuss, Notti suggested again that the opponents of the plan simply did not know the whole story.

“There are many, many things that you are not aware of that our city manager and our city attorney should address,” she said as she was gaveled down by Copeland for going beyond her allotted comment time.

Vincent began her remarks - which some on social media later called a “condescending rant” - by showing stacks of paper that she said were emails and SPLOST meeting notes relating to the park plan.

“At what point did the conflict of interest develop?” Vincent asked, noting that at least three administrations and two mayors never expressed any such concerns. She said the proposed entrance next to Notti’s house has been part of the plan since 2006 and no council member has ever suggested a conflict of interest.

“If anyone has seen her house, that house stands to bring more value to the park than the park does to her house,” she said.

Vincent, whose district covers much of the west side of McDonough, said that no one should expect people in her district to drive into the Square and up Hwy. 42 to get to the park.

“We’ve invested in that park, and the people in that district deserve access,” she said, adding that she objected to “disparity in how we invest money in this city. We’re not going to put it all downtown or on one side of the community and leave everyone else out. We deserve access from Jonesboro Road and that’s what I voted for.”

Copeland also called on Vincent to wrap up her comments as she went over her allotted time, and Vincent responded by calling on the mayor to speak up more about his own position on the issue. Copeland replied that he was not talking about it anymore.

Notti asked if the city attorney could be allowed to address the issue, but Copeland moved on to the next agenda item.