Senoia approves charter change, term limits

The Nov. 5 vote by the Senoia City Council to change the city charter to officially diminish the mayor’s power and to impose term limits on elected officials was unanimous. The charter is expected to be adopted in 2013 by the Georgia General Assembly.

Though operating for several years more like the council-manager form of government that puts the daily operations of city government in the hands of a manager, the council’s idea to change the city charter to one where the mayor has less control was essentially one that would prevent future mayors from possessing the far-reaching control found in the model adopted in 2000. Under the council-manager model the city manager has the responsibility for a variety of functions such as daily operations, personnel and finances.

As for the portion of the charter change dealing with the imposition of term limits, three consecutive terms for council members and two consecutive terms for mayor, all on the council support the move.

Citing one of the reasons to change the charter, both Mayor Robert Belisle and some on the council at the Oct. 3 work session noted that past problems had existed under the strong mayor form of government. And though the council-manager form could be reversed by a future council, the consensus was that the safest and most beneficial approach for Senoia citizens would be to limit the powers of the mayor by having the city manager responsible for finances, personnel and the day-to-day operations of city government. And that was the issue taken up at the Nov. 5 public hearing.

“The consensus from the council was to formally move to the council-manager form and to add term limits,” city attorney Drew Whalen said of the oct. 3 work session when the proposal was initially discussed.

Whalen Monday night said that a few years ago the council hired Richard Ferry as the city manager, but did not adopt the council-manager form of government. Whalen noted that the city is currently governed under the “weak mayor-council” charter adopted in 2000, but in previous years had shifted a what is essentially a hybrid.

“It is a weak mayor (form) in the sense that the mayor is not full-time,” Whalen said, though the council has said on previous occasions that the current form of government functions more like a strong mayor form since the mayor has significant power that both Belisle and all on the council believe should be curtailed.

“I don’t want city employees’ jobs to be subject to the political whims of any incoming board,” Belisle said in making the case for changing to the council-manager form. Belisle’s sentiments on putting a clamp on the mayor’s power were echoed by the other council members.

The public hearing that preceded the vote saw one resident speaking against the measure and three others speaking in favor of it. Don Rehman in his comments noted that there is no requirement for the city manager to have prior government experience. Though Rehman cited the Ga. Municipal Association (GMA) model charter on this and other issues he surfaced, Whalen said he used the model charter when writing the proposed charter. Rehman in his comments noted several other areas where he believed the new charter was lacking.

Speaking in favor of the new charter were Chester Kendall, Ken Hazelton and Joe Cannin.

Back in regular session, a motion to transmit the new charter with term limits for adoption by the General Assembly during the 2013 session was unanimous.

Pertaining to the council-manager form of local government and according to the Ga. Municipal Association, the city council provides the primary policy-making role, and an appointed city manager provides the primary executive role. It combines the strong political leadership of the elected mayor and council with the strong managerial experience of an appointed local government manager.

The structure of a municipality operating under the council-manager form of government is similar to the structure of a corporation. To this end, the municipality’s citizens are treated as shareholders that elect a city council to serve as their board of directors. The city council establishes the city’s policies, while a professional city manager, hired by the city council, is charged with implementing the council’s policies. In this capacity, the city manager functions similarly to a corporation’s chief executive officer, according to GMA.

Rehman subsequent to the meeting issues a statement stating that he had been bullied during his comments at the Nov. 5 meeting, the results of which he termed a “murderous assassination” by the council.

“Their silence, combined with what amounted to a display of inappropriate intolerance by Mayor Belisle and Councilman Graham, resulted in sum total, in a murderous assassination,” Rehman said.
Viewed from another perspective, Belisle at several points during Rehman’s lengthy presentation during the public comments portion of the meeting asked Rehman to cover only those areas pertinent to the issue at hand.

But there is more to the story, and it deals with the way the Senoia City Council conducts public comments in its meetings. Unlike nearly any governmental entity where a range of 2-5 minutes is allowed per public comment, the situation with the Senoia City Council is vastly different. There are no time restrictions imposed on citizen comments. And unlike most other governmental entities, the council in Senoia will often respond to questions posed during public comments. Asked about the lack of time restriction, Belisle on previous occasions stressed his belief that citizens should have the ability to state their case as long as they keep those comments on track with the issue at hand.