Barnes: City Council vote over the line
by Erin Dentmon
edentmon@cherokeetribune.com
January 04, 2013 11:43 PM | 1746 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
CANTON — The Canton City Council has once again voted to remove the mayor’s ability to employ a staff, despite a word of caution from a former governor that the move was outside the council’s authority.

At Thursday night’s meeting, the council voted 5-1, with Council Member Glen Cummins dissenting, to uphold a change to the city’s charter removing the mayor’s ability to hire a staff.

Mayor Gene Hobgood on Dec. 30 vetoed the council’s original decision to strip the mayor of staff, causing the matter to go to a third council vote.

At the meeting, former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, acting as the mayor’s counselor, told council members during the public comment session that voting to remove the mayor’s power to hold a staff would constitute a change in the city’s form of government and would take an act by the state Legislature.

The city’s charter states that the mayor is the chief executive of the city and possesses all executive and administrative powers granted by the state Constitution and the charter, which Barnes said indicates a strong mayor form of government.

Barnes said the Georgia Municipal Association’s model charter for a council/manager government with a strong mayor contains the same statement.

Only the Georgia General Assembly can change a city’s form of government, Barnes said.

“You cannot change those powers (of the mayor). The General Assembly can. Home rule does not apply,” Barnes said.

Council Member John Beresford questioned Barnes’ statement that the city is set up with a strong mayor government.

Council Member Hooky Huffman said he was unclear on what specifically a “chief executive” is in the world of government and what is included in the mayor’s executive and administrative powers.

Beresford said the office of the mayor doesn’t qualify as an executive branch.

“We do not have an executive branch. We do not have a Senate or a House of Representatives,” he said.

Barnes said case law in Georgia shows that a city council is the legislative branch in a strong mayor government.

When Huffman then questioned whether the city had been within its legal rights to change the charter in spring 2012, Barnes said: “Not all the things you changed were invalid,” adding that any changes made to the form of government during the charter updating process would be considered invalid.

“You cannot take away a power. The General Assembly must do that,” Barnes said.

Approving the ordinance to change the charter and remove the mayor’s ability to employ staff “could expose council members to personal liability,” Barnes said.

The council voted in November and again Dec. 20 to eliminate a section of the city charter allowing the mayor to employ a staff. However, in December the council talked about the possibility of an administrative assistant and a new economic development director.

During the Dec. 20 meeting, council members voted to approve a memorandum of understanding in support of the creation of an economic development department and a charter provision to allow an administrative assistant for the mayor and council members.

In a written explanation of the veto that followed, Hobgood said he had attempted to contact Bryan and Beresford regarding the wording of a proposed charter change to allow the mayor to employ one staff member.

Hobgood said Beresford did not respond by Dec. 30 and Bryan only responded by asking about meeting at a later date.

Bryan said he made efforts to work out the issue and that Hobgood was not specific about when he wanted to meet.

“I was willing to give this up, as unnecessary as it is, for you to support a fire bond referendum,” Bryan said to Hobgood during the meeting Thursday.

In his written explanation, Hobgood contended that the city deserves a full-time staff person in the mayor’s office. Hobgood stated that, since the mayor is part-time, eliminating the mayor’s staff “essentially eliminates” the city’s executive branch.

Immediately before voting Thursday, Beresford characterized bringing up the mayor’s role as chief executive as “confusing the issue.”

Before the vote, Cummins said he does not think the council has the legal authority to override the veto and remove the mayor’s ability to employ a staff.

“We are undertaking, step-by-step, steps toward a massive change in our form of government,” he said earlier in the meeting.
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