Members of the Bulloch County TEA Party didn't get the specific answers they wanted Tuesday during the Statesboro City Council meeting, but Councilman Travis Chance did address their questions.
At the Oct. 5 council meeting, TEA Party members asked questions, but received no response, said Heather Merritt, a spokesperson for the party. She referred to the silence and lack of response by councilmen that day as "hearing crickets."
But Chance, at the end of Tuesday's meeting, did respond to questions and expressed disapproval of other council members and the mayor for not addressing the group's queries.
Speaking in front of a packed room, TEA Party member Blaine Olmstead asked what has been done to prevent city employees from suing the city in the future.
He repeated a question he asked Sunday during a public meeting with Councilman John Riggs, which he said he did not believe was adequately answered. Riggs was not at the Tuesday meeting.
"... The city has decided to pay three city employees money because of some sort of issue, whether it is racial discrimination, sexual harassment or whatever the reason," he said. "What formal procedure has been put into place that was not there before, that will prevent other employees from the need to threaten to sue the city for other internal allegations?"
Olmstead referred to about $700,000 in settlement payments made to former city clerk Judy McCorkle, who sued for unfair termination; former city engineer Maz Elhaj, who filed a discrimination suit; and former city manager Shane Haynes, who was asked to resign by the council. The council has not made public its reasons for the resignation request.
"All Mr. Riggs stated was he would no longer vote to settle," Olmstead continued. "That still does not address the problem within the city administration, nor tell the taxpayers that you are being proactive instead of reactive."
Statesboro Mayor Joe Brannen handed the reins over to Interim City Manager Frank Parker, who attended his first city council meeting in that capacity Tuesday.
"I don't know that question there," Brannen said. "It's going to be referred by the city manager to get back with you probably in writing to give you an answer to that question."
Olmstead asked that the information be given to the Statesboro Herald. Brannen asked him to repeat the question.
"I'll give you the whole thing," Olmstead said. "What we'd like to know is what procedure has been put in place since the last three people have been ‘paid to go away,' so to speak, so that won't happen again. Mr. Riggs made a comment (Sunday) saying ‘we had fixed this, it would no longer happen.' So what I'm looking for is what has changed prior to that? What has the city put into place?
"Thank you, and Frank you will get back with (the Statesboro Herald)," Brannen said.
Merritt questioned the council next.
"Rather than come up here with a totally new question, I am hoping that if I ask the same question that was asked two weeks ago, maybe we could get an answer," she said. "I spoke with (city) staff attorney (Michael) Graves at the last council meeting and he stated we had a $16,000 surplus but that the Haynes "pay to go away" would create another deficit.
"Yet, Mr. Riggs said Sunday that it (money paid to Haynes upon his resignation) was covered out of the general fund; it would not create a deficit, and nothing would be cut as we had enough money," she continued. "Can you tell us today, if the Haynes decision was in the best interest of the citizens of Statesboro, are we now at a deficit in the city budget where we once had a surplus?
"Will you have to make additional cuts from the city budget to cover the expense of paying your settlement of $162,000 to the city manager, $30,000 to conduct a new job search and $3,000 a month to Frank Parker?"
Again, Brannen had no answer.
"...Mr. Parker will make notes and get with you in writing to answer your question," he told Merritt. "You might need to get with Frank Parker to get clarification so that we know what you want."
Merritt also asked Brannen and Parker to provide the Statesboro Herald with the information.
"The whole reason we are here ... is for accountability and sunshine, pretty much," she said. "We ... use the newspaper as a means to get our information, and when things are filtered and the newspaper doesn't have the things that most citizens need to be informed ...
Merritt told the council that TEA Party members spent $175 to pull records seeking answers to their questions and found information that had not been made readily available to the news media.
"I would humbly request that Mr. Parker respond to the newspaper," she said. "It's not just the TEA party that needs to be informed. Thank you very much."
Statesboro citizen Debbie Sabia also addressed the council, suggesting a Georgia Southern University student be made an ex-officio member of the council in order to give students a voice in city government. She also commented on public perception of the city council.
"I'm here to tell you there is a deep-seated and pervasive distrust of this city council," she said.
Listing expectations she and others have of the city council - transparency, responsiveness, inclusiveness and accountability, she said "We need and want representatives who are committed to these core values."
She also suggested the council hold a monthly forum where citizens can interact with city officials; have a user-friendly electronic website soliciting feedback, and "use the newspaper and radio to update us on important issues."
Sabia also asked the council to "accept responsibility for mistakes that you make and be willing to do so publicly... or be willing to step down from office."
After the city council moved on to other business and approached the conclusion of the meeting, Chance spoke up.
He apologized to the TEA Party members for not having been present at the previous meeting, and said he had no idea what Riggs was referring to about a new policy concerning settlements during his Sunday, Oct. 19 meeting at the Honey Bowen Building.
Riggs did not attend Tuesday's city council meeting.
"We have nothing in place that was not in place six months ago," he said, referring to Olmstead's question. "There is really nothing in place. If an employee felt they had a case for litigation, you see what happens."
He also apologized on the council's behalf for questions going unanswered and for not having a better answer at the time.
"I know it's not much of an answer, but it's an answer," he said, promising to follow up on the issue with the media as well as the citizens who asked questions.
After the meeting, Chance said it is the mayor's responsibility to provide answers to citizens, and that while councilmen should be sure of their answers, they should still provide them when possible.
"We want to be politically correct, but it's our duty to respond," he said. "To show that we do care."
Referring to Sabia's suggestions, Chance said the council has approached GSU regarding a student ex-officio council member, but has not yet received a response.
He is in favor of the suggestion. "Anything we can do to give back to the city, we should do it," he said.
Parker said he would address the citizen's questions, and promised to have an "open door" policy regarding city government issues, except in areas such as personnel matters, where legalities prevent revealing certain information.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at 912-489-9414.