published Friday, March 14th, 2014

Fort Oglethorpe mayor loses clout under new charter

Every TV news crew in Chattanooga set up cameras at City Hall in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., the afternoon of Oct. 30, 2013, when Mayor Lynn Long called an emergency meeting to decry footage his political opponents used on a public access cable TV show.

Long announced that he felt "put at risk" by the "violent" five-minute clip from a 1992 PG-rated, made-for-TV Hallmark movie that depicted the 1946 "Battle of Athens" in Athens, Tenn. Returning World War II veterans, battling a political boss they accused of corruption and voter fraud, were shown dynamiting the door off the McMinn County Jail so they could retrieve ballot boxes and count votes in public.

Steve Cooper, a city resident who co-hosted the cable TV show in question, dismissed Long's ad hoc news conference then as a "political stunt" held just before the Nov. 5 election.

Fort Oglethorpe's mayor won't be able to call any more emergency meetings -- unless three council members agree -- under legislation to amend the city's charter that passed the Georgia House Wednesday and is expected to sail through the Georgia Senate, possibly today.

Doing away with the mayor's executive authority to call and cancel meetings is one of several changes outlined in the eight-page House Bill 1134 to amend Fort Oglethorpe's charter that Cooper helped craft, since he was appointed by Georgia Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, as chairman of a citizens committee that reviewed the charter.

"Under Mayor Long's term there was like a 60 percent increase in the number of special called meetings," Cooper said. "Some of these were called at inappropriate times in the middle of the day."

The committee felt it would promote open government and increase public participation if the mayor's power to call open meetings was curtailed, Cooper said.

Long said he canceled a meeting recently because of bad weather, and revoking the power would affect his successor as well.

"Remember the ice storm we had? I didn't want seniors out driving to a meeting with ice all over the road," Long said. Under the charter revisions, "I would not have been able to cancel that meeting."

One amendment that didn't make it into the bill's final version would have taken away the mayor's right to vote.

"That was one thing we toyed with," Cooper said. "I think [the state legislature's attorney] felt that was possibly too restrictive."

The mayor votes only in the case of tie votes among the five-member City Council.

Sharrock's seat can be filled

Fort Oglethorpe now has only four active council members, because former Councilman Charles Sharrock's seat has been vacant since the City Council voted 4-0 on Nov. 27, 2012, to oust him for sexually harassing three female city employees. Sharrock is still appealing his ouster in court.

The charter revisions will allow the council to appoint someone to fill a temporary vacancy of a city council member or mayor who is suspended. If a court reverses the suspension, the temporary assignment no longer will be effective.

That means the City Council can fill Sharrock's seat, Cooper said, once Gov. Nathan Deal signs the charter amendment bill into law.

Most of the bill deals with conflicts of interest and establishes a city ethics board.

That was partly inspired, Cooper said, by former Mayor Judd Burkhart's purchase of property along Cloud Springs Road, which was widened and improved by the state.

"He went out and bought a lot of property on Cloud Springs Road and profited from knowledge the general public didn't have," Cooper said.

Burkhart owns three properties on Cloud Springs Road -- two co-owned with prominent local businessman Emerson Russell -- according to Catoosa tax assessor records online.

"That's crazy," Burkhart said Thursday, when told of Cooper's comments. "I've never done anything unethical. There's no insider information. It was common knowledge that they were going to widen Cloud Springs Road," he said.

The charter amendment also calls for the preservation of the historic Polo Grounds at Barnhardt Circle. The city was sued by a preservation-minded neighbor for pouring a slab of concrete there as part of a cricket playing field.

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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