published Monday, May 20th, 2013

As Fort Oglethorpe Turns: Like a TV soap opera, drama drags on in City Hall

Stuart James, left, attorney for Jeff Long, has words with Fort Oglethorpe City Attorney Robert L. Stultz, right, during proceedings Tuesday concerning the firing of two long-time city employees.
Stuart James, left, attorney for Jeff Long, has words with Fort Oglethorpe City Attorney Robert L. Stultz, right, during proceedings Tuesday concerning the firing of two long-time city employees.
Photo by Tim Barber.
  • photo
    Attorney McCracken Poston questions Fort Oglethorpe City Manager Harold Silcox Tuesday at a special hearing in the council chambers.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
    enlarge photo

Smiles were exchanged a week ago between Lynn Long, mayor of Fort Oglethorpe, and Chris McKeever, executive director of the 6th Cavalry Museum.

Long's smile seemed genuine.

That is, he genuinely seemed to enjoy casting the deciding "no" vote at the May 13 council meeting against McKeever's request for $4,500 to pay for a tourism billboard on Interstate 75.

It would have routed visitors onto Battlefield Parkway through Fort Oglethorpe when the 150th anniversary Battle of Chicka-mauga re-enactment is held in September at McLemore's Cove in rural Walker County.

"The mayor's going to vote 'nay,'" said Long, who often refers to himself in the third person. "So it fails 3 to 2."

As McKeever stepped away from the podium, an eye roll accompanied her wide smile.

"Thank you," she said.

That's a typical exchange these days in Fort Oglethorpe's City Council chamber, where things may be all smiles on the surface, but tensions simmer underneath -- and often boil over.

Fort Oglethorpe city government has been in an uproar since the sudden dismissals March 22 of City Manager Ron Goulart, Police Chief David Eubanks and Public Works Director Jeff Long.

Angry supporters of the fired men have packed into every meeting since then. They've launched "Restore Fort Oglethorpe," an effort to recall the mayor and councilmen who backed the dismissals.

There's a lot of baggage involved. Like the storylines that wind endlessly through daytime soap operas, disputes drag on, flare up and endure as long-held grudges.

Has controversy colored city business to the point where it's taking over? Do elected officials cast votes based on Fort Oglethorpe's best interests -- or out of spite?

Mayor 'vindictive'

McKeever thinks the mayor is spiteful.

"I take it he is settling scores with anyone who has ever crossed him," she said.

She puts herself in that category.

McKeever is active in the recall effort. When red-lettered "recall" signs were brandished at City Council meetings, McKeever held hers up, too.

"I am the one who had them printed," she said.

Mayor Long hasn't taken kindly to the recall effort.

He's had police escort recall supporters from City Council meetings. On Tuesday night, the mayor ordered audience members to remove the dollar bill-sized "recall" signs pinned to their chests or face ejection. Half a dozen police officers were at the ready in the council chamber.

McKeever thinks the recall is one reason Mayor Long and his allies, Councilmen Louis Hamm and Johnnie "Red" Smith, shot down the billboard for which the City Council already had budgeted.

"It was the same graphic design that was approved by the mayor at a previous meeting for pole banners," she said.

Mayor Long said spite didn't play any role in his vote.

"I don't make decisions on emotion," he said. "I work for the taxpayers, and they need to get some value for their buck."

One objection the mayor said he had to the proposed billboard is that the design lacked any mention of Fort Oglethorpe.

'I always smile'

Mayor Long smiled when he killed the billboard, and audience members accused Long of smirking during an uproarious March 25 council meeting.

"You have laughed at everybody who's walked up here," one man said then. "I don't know what's so funny. This is serious business."

Mayor Long said he's a smiler.

"I always smile," he said. "I got criticized when this thing first started because I smile so doggone much. Life's too short not to smile."

McKeever scored one victory the night her billboard proposal was defeated. Councilman Earl Gray nominated McKeever and Jeff Long to serve on the mayor's charter review committee.

That's related to another storyline in the ongoing Fort Oglethorpe drama.

State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, and Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold, calling the dismissals an abuse of power, reacted by creating a committee to review the city's charter.

The mayor responded by saying he would create the city's own, competing charter committee. He asked each councilman to suggest two appointees.

Gray's suggestion to appoint Long and McKeever was a dig.

Likely just a symbolic one, because the City Council will decide tonight who to appoint to the mayor's committee, and the nominations by Gray -- odd man out on the council -- likely will be voted down.

'Squabbling ever since'

A new storyline in the Fort Oglethorpe drama began Tuesday, when attorneys McCracken Poston and Stuart James, who represent fired employees David Eubanks and Jeff Long, filed suit against the city in Catoosa County Superior Court.

Poston dramatically placed copies of the lawsuit in front of a row of TV news cameras at Tuesday night's appeal hearing for the two fired men.

He closely questioned interim City Manager Harold Silcox that night about Silcox's decision to fire the men on March 22, shortly after the City Council fired Goulart and appointed Silcox.

Silcox repeatedly maintained that no one told him to dismiss Eubanks or Jeff Long.

"I don't believe anybody in this room believes you came up on your own to fire these two city servants," Poston said.

Born and raised in Catoosa County, Poston has his office in Ringgold and served four terms in the Georgia House of Representatives.

He said controversy is nothing new in Fort Oglethorpe, which was incorporated in 1949.

"The place was a decommissioned military base, handed over lock and key to the Legislature, who quickly created an instant town around it," Poston said in an email. "They have been squabbling ever since over this, that or the other."

Mayor Long has a different take on the dismissals of the two men, who failed in their bid to get their jobs back from the City Council.

"As far as we're concerned, it's over, it's done," Mayor Long said.

The mayor expects the controversy to die down in time.

"Peace shall return," Mayor Long said. "[It] always does. I can already tell it's quieter."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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