Varnell City Council meeting ends in drama after councilwoman leaves abruptly

Varnell City Council meeting ends in drama after councilwoman leaves abruptly

August 16th, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Citizens in attendance of a canceled council meeting cheer as Councilman Jan Pourquoi walks out Tuesday, July 25, 2017, at the Varnell City Gym in Varnell, Ga.

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

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VARNELL, Ga. — In the middle of a city council meeting Tuesday night, an elected official stood up to leave, blocking any further votes.

"I'm calling this meeting," Varnell City Councilwoman Ashlee Godfrey told the crowd at a local gym. "There is no longer a quorum developed. No more city business can take place. Thank you."

In the bleachers, a crowd of about 100 people rose and cheered as Godfrey walked outside, ending the meeting just as the council's two other members planned to vote to put a referendum on the Nov. 7 ballot. Councilmen Jan Pourquoi and David Owens want residents to decide whether to eliminate the city's police department.

At the same time, voters would also decide whether to eliminate property taxes, which sit at about 2.4 mills. But Godfrey and Mayor Anthony Hulsey objected to the wording on the potential referendum, as did some residents who spoke during the meeting. They feel as though the councilmen should not tie the elimination of the police department to the elimination of taxes.

"It's kind of like a bribe," Hulsey said.

Pourquoi, Owens and Godfrey have argued about this issue for about a month. Pourquoi and Owens say they don't need the police department and its $300,000 annual budget, that the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office can cover them without a spike in crime. Godfrey, meanwhile, said the city's police department responds to calls faster and makes residents feel secure.

Varnell City Attorney Terry Miller and Mayor Anthony Hulsey walk into the Varnell City Gym before a canceled council meeting Tuesday, July 25, 2017, in Varnell, Ga. The Varnell City Council were meeting to decide whether or not to eliminate its police department, but there weren't enough council members in attendance for a quorum.

Varnell City Attorney Terry Miller and Mayor Anthony...

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

In Varnell, the council needs three members present to conduct public business. In the last two months, two other council members have already resigned. This means all three current members have to appear. On July 25, when Pourquoi and Owens tried to vote on this same referendum, Godfrey did not show up, canceling the meeting.

She later said she was recovering from a medical procedure. This time, before announcing that she would exit the meeting, Godfrey said the council legally could not vote on the issue. She said the city's charter required two readings at two different public meetings before a vote. Therefore, she said, the council would have to wait until their next meeting on Sept. 18.

The delay makes all the difference. Godfrey said the council must submit the language of the referendum to the secretary of state's office by Sept. 2 to put the item on the November ballot. In other words, no council vote Tuesday means no residents' vote this year.

Godfrey's announcement shocked Pourquoi.

"We're going to vote," he said.

"No," Godfrey said, "you're not."

"So much for listening to the people," Pourquoi said.

City Attorney Terry Miller was among those confused. He asked Godfrey what part of the charter she was referring to, and then she and Hulsey huddled with Miller. On the other end of the table, Pourquoi and Owens huddled, too. Someone in the bleachers shouted at Pourquoi, mocking him for getting blocked again.

Pourquoi shouted back, something about simply wanting to decrease the scope of government.

"You're not listening to us," Ramona Pangle, a resident, shouted back.

"What more listening can there be than an organized vote of the people?" Pourquoi asked.

"It'd be better to listen now," one man shouted.

"Yeah," said another man. "Listen now."

As the crowd began to shout at Pourquoi, shout at Owens and shout over each other, Hulsey grabbed a microphone.

"Everybody, settle down," he said.

Meanwhile, Miller explained to Godfrey that her understanding of the city law did not appear to be correct. Turned out, she was looking at an old version of the charter, one that had been amended in 1994. Realizing that, in fact, Pourquoi and Owens legally could vote to put the referendum on the ballot, Godfrey stood up, announcing her official exit from the meeting.

As the crowd gave Godfrey a standing ovation, Pourquoi shouted at Miller, asking if this was all legal. Can you really just leave a meeting in the middle, without an actual emergency? Miller said he wasn't sure.

As the other elected official scrambled to figure out what just happened, Godfrey strolled back into the gym, shaking hands with approving residents. She said the other two council members were "clearly" ignoring the opinions of the people in attendance.

She grabbed a notebook and a box with some public records that she brought to the gym and stayed for about 10 more minutes, chatting with friends at the location of the meeting she no longer attended.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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