East Ridge City Council members voted to restart work repairing one neighborhood's foot bridges after a hotly contested 45-minute debate during a special meeting Wednesday night.
Two councilmen called the meeting to address the issue after city leaders pulled the plug on work they had already started to replace a series of dilapidated foot bridges crossing large, streetside ditches.
Cedar Glen, a 100-home neighborhood which backs up against Camp Jordan, is in a flood plain. When the neighborhood was developed, a network of large drainage pipes and culverts was installed to help funnel out excess water.
Ten wooden foot bridges with railings were then built over the steep ditches to allow for continuous sidewalks. Those bridges, now rotten and dilapidated, have become a major hazard to many young families, neighbors say.
The city agreed to do the $15,000 job during an April meeting, and Cedar Glen resident Susan Daniels assumed that was the end of the story.
But at a May 10 work meeting, Mayor Brent Lambert said he wanted to "clarify" the council's vote, saying that, under the new rules of a city grant program, Cedar Glen would need to form a neighborhood association as a "formality" to receive the funds and set future precedent for similar projects.
That message was never communicated to Cedar Glen residents, city leaders admit.
Meanwhile, City Manager Tim Gobble said miscommunication among city staff led them to go ahead and order materials and start the project.
Work had been done on five bridges when the dilemma about the homeowners association requirement came up in a Aug. 23 council agenda meeting.
On Friday, Gobble ordered a halt to the work until the issue could be resolved, leaving a gaping pit where the city removed one bridge and exposed a large drainage ditch and a hole on the edge of the road beside one new concrete slab.
Daniels said she had no idea why the work stopped until she called the city. That was when she found out about the added stipulation about the homeowners association.
"I never heard of such a thing," said David Owens, a Cedar Glen resident since 1994. "It's money. This is a different regime from what we dealt with in the past."
Councilman Darwin Branam insists that the sidewalks are not city property, and he does not want the city to set a precedent working on property that is not city-owned.
During Wednesday's special meeting, council members essentially voted to create an exception to the homeowners association requirement -- only for Cedar Glen and only because of the city's failure to clearly communicate the stipulation.
City Attorney John Anderson said the carefully-worded motion allows work to immediately restart on the bridges -- Cedar Glen residents won't need to start an association -- but it also avoids setting precedent for future cases.
If the city focuses solely on this project, the bridges could be completed within two weeks.
Councilmen Jim Bethune and Denny Manning called the special meeting on Monday. Lambert, who is on vacation this week, cried foul.
"I think this is an illegal meeting because I was not approached about it before they called it," Lambert said by phone.
Branam opened Wednesday's meeting with a request to cancel the meeting because it was not legitimate.
"This is not a legal meeting," he said. "Whatever we do tonight, we'll have to do again."
The City Charter states that emergency meetings can be called by the mayor or in the mayor's "absence or inability or unwillingness to act," the vice mayor or two councilmen can call a meeting.
The mayor said he was never approached about the Cedar Glen meeting, but he would have been willing to hold it when he got back from vacation.
Bethune said he interpreted the charter to say that two councilmen had equal ability as the mayor to call a meeting, and said he did not know Lambert would be out of town when he called it.
"If I'd planned it just because [he was out of town] -- that would be under the table, and that would be wrong," Bethune said. "We called it because this is an urgent situation for the folks that live in that neighborhood."
He also said Gobble sent an email Monday to all council members to announce the meeting.
"The mayor had the opportunity at that time to pick up the phone," Bethune said. "He didn't call me."
Elisha Hodge, the state Comptroller's Office open records counsel, said East Ridge's charter is written too vaguely to make a clear statement about the issue.
"Basically, that is very subjective. In my opinion, all that language is subjective," she said.
Members debated the legality of the meeting Wednesday, and eventually decided to go forward despite Anderson's cautions that the members' decision could be null and void.