Community concerned as Hiawassee Council maintains silence on questionable Ethics Board

News, Politics
Mayor Liz Ordiales

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Public comments were not offered from elected city officials at the Hiawassee Council regular session, held on Tuesday, Aug. 7, concerning the recent proposal of a citywide plastic bag ban-fee by Councilwoman Anne Mitchell, nor an alleged ethics ordinance breach by Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales. Information on both controversial subjects can be found by clicking on the highlighted links.

Community concerns abound due to the mayor’s overriding action to solely appoint Board of Ethics members to serve as the city’s moral monitors, without directly seeking council input as prescribed by the city mandate, nor taking the matter to vote.

Remarks made by minutes-old appointee Leslie McPeak, comparing a recent Republican event to that of the Nazi Party, during the July 30 work session, is drawing shocked critique from local leaders, and countless conservative residents of Towns County.

McPeak did not attend Tuesday’s session.

The ordinance specifically states that of the three Ethics Board members, one individual is to be appointed by the mayor, one member by the city council, and the third in joint conjunction. Georgia Municipal Association (GMA), the entity whom awarded the recognition of city of ethics to Hiawassee, cites three alternative processes that may be taken in the induction of board appointees, all of which stipulate council approval.

In a recorded conversation with FYN, following the appointment of the board members, Ordiales defended her decision by stating that council members do not have an issue with the selection. This has proven to not be the case. Two of the five council members confided that they were never presented with an option.

In attendence at Tuesday’s council meeting were members of the local organization Mountain Movers and Shakers, and the Towns County GOP, along with other new faces. Prior to the commencement of the session, an attendee asked Mayor Ordiales if questions would be received, to which Ordiales replied, “Nope, not today.”

Ordiales explained at the opening of the meeting, proceeding a climate change tax motion, that work sessions are the proper place for the council and public to present inquiries and concerns, as those forums are “informal.” Ordiales went on to state that items listed on the agenda are not necessarily issues that the council hopes to enforce, nor support, rather that the listed items present an opportunity for the council to openly discuss the matter.

The climate change resolution, proposed by local environmentalist Vernon Dixon on July 30, was rejected by council members at the Aug. 7 session.

“I have no vote,” Ordiales reminded the council, “Even if I wanted to vote on something, I can’t.” Ordiales spoke in favor of the climate fee and dividend resolution during the conversation with FYN the previous week, although the mayor said she did not have the time nor the resources to personally pursue the matter.

It is unknown at the time of publication whether the bag ban-fee, or the ethics concern, will appear on the Aug. 27 work session agenda, but the latter is expected to be addressed as two sitting council members state that they were never given ample opportunity to approve nor veto the mayor’s ethics board appointees.

Despite Ordiales’ insistence that the matter had been previously decided, former city officials attest that a formal review of Board of Ethics applicants had never taken place during their administration, and in turn, that a decision had not been reached as to which applicants should serve on the board, once the original 2016 decree was adopted. Records showing that an approval had occurred could not be produced by City Hall.

Count on FYN to follow developments as the August work session approaches.

Information on the newly-rejected Climate Change Tax resolution is available.

Author

Robin H. Webb

Robin can be reached by dialing 706-970-8491 or contacted via email at Robin@FetchYourNews.com

Mayor overrides ethics ordinance, board member equates GOP with Nazi Party

Investigative Report, News, Politics
Hiawassee City Council

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Hiawassee formally received recognition as a “City of Ethics” at a Georgia Municiple Association (GMA) conference in late June, attended by Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales and Hiawassee City Clerk Bonnie Kendrick. Shortly thereafter, FetchYourNews (FYN) reported on the city’s award, which stemmed from a 2016 ethics ordinance, and later adopted by current council.

Section 6 of the mandate states that a Board of Ethics shall be appointed, consisting of three individuals who will serve as overseers of the city’s ethical conduct. The ordinance requires that one member is to be appointed by the mayor, one by the council, and a third in joint agreement of both the mayor and city council.

Violations of the ordinance can result in public reprimand, or a request for resignation, according to the decree.

Remarks made by a member selected to serve on the Board of Ethics, in conjunction with an executive decision to override the stipulations of the ordinance itself, has raised community concerns.

Hiawassee ethics

Section 6 of the Ethics Ordinance

FYN learned that applications to serve on the Board of Ethics were submitted by local residents LaJean Turner, Susan Phillips, and Leslie McPeak the previous year.

In an email to FYN, dated July 10, Hiawassee City Clerk Bonnie Kendrick stated that Mayor Ordiales believed that the former mayor had appointed McPeak, and that Ordiales had voted for Phillips, although Kendrick stated that it was unclear if Phillips was the council vote, or a combined appointment from both mayor and council. “Now that we have the designation, we will need to go through that process of appointing the committee again from the beginning,” Kendrick concluded.

Kendrick could not produce meeting minutes showing approval of an ethics committee.

Former city officials later attested that apppointment of an ethics board had, in fact, not taken place during their administration, with the three applicants themselves confirming that appointment to the positions had not occurred.

During the July 30 work session, Mayor Ordiales briefly touched on an ethics agenda item, presenting her Board selection of the three board members as a statement, rather than as a consideration before the council.

As last Monday’s work session neared its end, freshly-selected Board of Ethics member Leslie McPeak publicly voiced complaint of recent Republican run-off campaign signage placed on Hiawassee Town Square, along with opposition to a rally held by the Towns County GOP in July at the same location. In objection to the square being used for religious and political events, McPeak stated, “Not only the Democrat Party, but the Nazi Party.” McPeak attempted clarification by adding, “The government needs to be bi-partisan at all times.”

The remark, along with previous statements publicly vocalized by McPeak, begged the question of whether council members believe McPeak is the right fit to oversee the city’s code of conduct. At a Town Hall meeting in June, McPeak drew critisism from conservatives when the outspoken local business owner proclaimed that shops should serve customers on Sundays, later adding that North Georgia should work toward removing its “Bible Belt stigma.”

FYN met with Mayor Ordiales on the morning of Thursday, Aug. 2, to gain further insight into her decision to select the chosen individuals to serve as the morality monitors of the city government

In a recorded conversation, Ordiales explained that the ethics ordinance was originally passed in 2016 by the former administration, and that the application for recognition through GMA had not been submitted at that time. “I wanted to start the process again because I believe in what (GMA) stands for, what we stand for, as being a City of Ethics is very important, and that we should absolutely try to enforce it,” Ordiales said, “Serve others and not themselves, put the citizens needs before anything, I mean, there’s a list of them.”

Hiawassee City Hall

Code of Ethics

FYN asked if the decision to appoint Turner, Phillips, and McPeak had been approved by the former council, in which Ordiales responded, “Absolutely.” After learning that former Hiawassee officials had no recollection of any agreement on ethics board appointees, Ordiales responded, “It was their administration, not mine. That’s on them.” Ordiales served as a council member during the period in question.

FYN pressed as to whether the mayor planned to seek approval from current council members on the individuals selected to serve on the ethics board, given the stipulations of the ordinance. “I think we’ve talked about it at work sessions, at city council meetings, and none of the current council has any problem with it. I’ve not been notified that they have an issue with it. Let’s rock on,” Ordiales asserted. FYN inquired as to whether the decree itself would be altered, considering that the terms of the committee appointment process were violated. “That’s pretty much a standard ordinance that GMA puts out, that you should follow. I don’t think you have the option of saying, ‘hey, we’re not going to do it.’ It’s their standard,” Ordiales contradicted.

FYN provided Mayor Ordiales with an additional opportunity to respond via email, along with council members, on Aug. 4.

“Since the paperwork and process was not followed by the prior leadership, we were never awarded the designation. When I took office, I wanted to ensure that we became a certified City of Ethics, and followed the proper processes,” Ordiales wrote, “The three previously selected individuals never got a chance to serve the community as they volunteered to do, since the designation was never awarded. I simply afforded them that opportunity. I presented to the council, and verified that these candidates were still, indeed, interested in being part of this process. The council is aware of these selections, and had no objection to these selections.”

In turn, Hiawassee Councilwoman Anne Mitchell responded by email to FYN’s request for comment.

“It was discussed in a council work session (when, I do not remember) and none of us had any issue with any of the three at that time,” Councilwoman Anne Mitchell emphasized, “THAT is direct input! Do you think it really makes a difference that an “appointed by” name wasn’t attached to each candidate? It might if there were twenty vying for the position, or if there was dissention among the council, but there wasn’t. It was brought up at the July 30 work session as a reminder that we ARE a city of ethics, and we DO have an ethics committee, and who those members are. Mrs. Turner, Ms. Phillips, and Ms. McPeak were agreed to, not by just the mayor, but by the council.”

Two additional council members replied to FYN’s request for clarity, stating that they had not been made aware of the the individuals who sought to serve upon the ethics board prior to Monday’s meeting, nor had they been given an option of favoring or opposing the mayor’s committee selection.

In understanding that the terms of the mandate had been breeched, the two responding council members avowed objection to the overriding measure taken. It is unknown at the time of publication where the two remaining council members stand on the issue.

The responding council members, nor the mayor, commented on McPeak’s remarks.

Hiawassee City Council is scheduled to convene for their regular monthly session on Tuesday, Aug. 7, at 6:00 p.m.

Author

Robin H. Webb

Robin can be reached by dialing 706-970-8491 or contacted via email at Robin@FetchYourNews.com

City of Hiawassee audited, multiple ordinances adopted

News, Politics
City of Hiawassee

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Hiawassee City Council convened with an unlisted agenda visit from Ed Burton, an auditor with Strickland and Associates, during their regular monthly meeting March 6, 2018.

Citizen turnout was sparse in comparison to recently held sessions.

The audit examined the previous year’s finances, concluding June 30, 2017. Current Mayor Liz Ordiales, Anne Mitchell, and Kris Berrong served on the council during the examined fiscal frame. In addition, newly elected council members Amy Barrett, Nancy Noblet, and Patsy Owens were present at Tuesday’s assembly.

“Debt went up, but assets did too,” Burton announced during his presentation conducted while facing the council. The auditor proceeded to relay his findings before the elected officials, explaining they are based on government-wide standards. Burton noted the increase in assets were the result of grants and heightened service charges, in combination with increased fines and forfeitures.

The audit shows a $121,554 increase in water charges, coupled with an elevation of $54,860 in fines and forfeitures. Legal fees were significantly higher in the general fund, with total professional in general government up $59,144.

The audit states the city of Hiawassee should be vigilant in continuing to raise water rates as needed, while cutting expenses where possible.

Revenues expanded due to increased water charges, along with a $157,623 grant for forgiveness of debt on a project related to water meters. Liabilities rose due to the net Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA) loan which replaced city water meters, while lessened as the result of a decrease in pension liability.

Burton specifically noted a department level “over-run” related to the purchase of a Hiawassee Police Department patrol vehicle. Although the city of Hiawassee had enough in the general fund to cover the expense, it was not allotted for public safety. Georgia law requires for budgets to be adopted at the department level, stating that expenditures must be spent in compliance.

As the accountant concluded his findings, Mayor Liz Ordiales, who was elected to the council in late 2015 and selected to serve as mayor pro-tem in early 2017, reminded the three newly elected council members that former Hiawassee Mayor Barbara Mathis and former Hiawassee City Manager Rick Stancil were also in office during the fiscal year in review.

The full council proceeded to sign the recently adopted “City of Ethics” resolution.

The motel-hotel mandate was unanimously favored, allotting Hiawassee with 60 percent of the tax revenue, which was once applied in its entirety to the Towns County Chamber of Commerce.

The Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Corporation (BRMEMC) franchise ordinance passed unopposed with longtime proponent Anne Mitchell motioning, followed by newly sworn Patsy Owens seconding the decree.

A motion for a two-year landscape contract with Mountain Living was approved in the annual amount of $9,225. Out of seven bids, Mountain Living was cited as the lowest.

Although an executive session was listed on the agenda, Mayor Liz Ordiales opted out, stating it is systematically added under the advisement of City Attorney Thomas Mitchell. Attorney Mitchell was not in attendance at Tuesday’s session.

The meeting adjourned “in a record-breaking 22 minutes,” according to Mayor Ordiales.

The 2016-17 audit and city ordinances are available for public review in their entirety at Hiawassee City Hall.

Hiawassee City Council meets for their monthly work session on the last Monday of each month at 6 p.m. The regular sessions are conducted the following Tuesday at 6 p.m.

Both take place at Hiawassee City Hall and are open to the public.

 

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Author

Robin H. Webb

Robin can be reached by dialing 706-970-8491 or contacted via email at Robin@FetchYourNews.com

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