After representatives for the Bulloch County TEA Party addressed the Statesboro City Council at Tuesday's regular meeting, members were visibly and vocally upset about the lack of response from the mayor and council.
Heather Merritt and Joe Jennings, two of the TEA Party organizers, addressed the council at the beginning of the morning meeting "to humbly ask for openness and honesty in city government" and to find out what city budgets will need to be cut to make up for the shortfall resulting from the recent settlements. After she spoke to the council and asked them if the recent settlements paid by the city offset the recent budget cutbacks, Merritt, Jennings, and other TEA party members received no response from council members.
"I felt like we were very unwelcome. And I can't imagine having to be an individual constituent - a citizen of the city - trying to go up there and make an earnest plea only to have it fall on deaf ears continuously," Merritt said. "And now I see the frustration that the city citizens are feeling right now. That's amplified and intensified our efforts a hundred-fold."
Merritt and other TEA party members came to Tuesday's meeting in the wake of last week's announcement the city would pay former City Manager Shane Haynes a $162,000 settlement after he was asked to resign the week before. Haynes' settlement came after other settlements with city employees totaled more than $650,000 in the past two years. A non-disclosure agreement was part of all the settlements, and council members who voted to oust Haynes, have not given any substantive reasons for their actions.
Councilman Will Britt praised the efforts of the TEA party and said he is pleased that concerned citizens are starting to make their voices heard.
"Great. Fantastic. I think the group does a very good job whether you like their stance on things or not," Britt said. "They come up, they're very polite, they ask questions and they brought some things to light. I hope some of those things will be addressed."
Merritt said she was shocked by the lack of feedback from the mayor and council.
"I got crickets - nothing - no response," Merritt said. "There was no acknowledgement that people made an effort to have their voices heard. There was no acknowledgment that the Bulloch County TEA Party was taking up two rows."
Britt said it might be time for the council to reconsider how they interact with people who come before the council with questions.
"It's become a weird thing, in my opinion, that our council will do that - we allow you to speak your mind then we don't address it at all," Britt said. "I think the council should take a different approach to allow you to present the questions maybe beforehand, then come and speak, and then we have something prepared to respond."
In other business, no action was taken on the memorandum of understanding between First Baptist Church of Statesboro and the city. FBC sought about $44,000 in financial assistance from the city to expand the water line feeding the church in order to satisfy fire suppression needs for their planned sanctuary expansion.
However, when the topic came up during the meeting, Councilman John Riggs recused himself from the vote and discussion, saying that he has attended the church since he "was a week old." That left only Britt, Councilmen Tommy Blitch and Gary Lewis to debate the matter, as Councilman Travis Chance was not at the meeting because of a work-related conflict.
Blitch first floated a motion to approve the MOU, but the motion died for lack of a second. Then, Britt floated a motion to deny the request, only to see that motion also die for a lack of a second. Staff Attorney Michael Graves said the lack of action by the city was not a rejection of the proposal, but that there was just not sufficient support to approve it.
Lewis would not comment on why he did not second either motion.
Had it passed, FBC would have paid for all materials involved with running a new water line from the intersection of Hill and Oak Streets to the planned new sanctuary and would have paid for any repairs to the sidewalk or street surfaces affected by the extension. The city, in turn, would have paid for the labor necessary to install the new 10" water main.
Blitch, a member of FBC, said he was not just thinking about the church when he voted to approve the measure.
"They do a lot of thing for people out there. We've always got to think about community, too," Blitch said.
Britt, also a member of FBC, said other churches have been required to pay for their infrastructure improvements in the past and he didn't want to start a precedent, which could open up the city to a flood of similar requests.
"If any other establishments in town were to come to us and ask us to increase the size of their water flow - providing little or no benefit to the other citizens of Statesboro - we would have to charge for it," Britt said.
Mayor Joe Brannen said during the meeting that the MOU likely will be discussed again at the next council meeting.
After the council entered and came back from an executive session, the council voted 4-0 to offer former city councilman and local real estate developer Frank Parker the job of interim city manager. Riggs offered the motion to select Parker.
"Frank loves the city. He has no other agenda than to make the city a better place," Riggs said.
Parker will receive $3,000 per month for his services, though his initial contract will only last 30 days. Britt said this was to clarify Parker's responsibilities as interim manager.
"We want to make sure he understands what the agreement is and what is expected of him," Britt said.
At the end of the initial 30 days, Parker would likely be offered another contract that would automatically renew itself every 30 days until a new full-time city manager is found or until Parker decides to step down as interim manager.
Councilman Lewis declined to comment on Parker's hiring.
Phil Boyum may be reached at (912) 489-9454.