'Tumultuous' times in tiny town of Lyerly, Ga.

'Tumultuous' times in tiny town of Lyerly, Ga.

April 19th, 2011 by Andy Johns in News

The mayor of Lyerly, Ga., has stepped down, saying she is tired of being bullied by her older brother, a councilman who soon will take over the reins as mayor.

On Friday, Mayor Jessica Wyatt Eller became the second city official to resign last week, and the third in the last six months.

In a letter dated Friday and addressed to the residents of Lyerly, Eller - who was elected in November 2009 - wrote that she was sad to resign but that her time as mayor has been "tumultuous and spirit-breaking due to constant belittling and berating, all of which is unnecessary."

Attempts to reach Eller on her cellphone and at her place of business were unsuccessful Monday.

The Chattooga County town of 540 residents may be small, but it's not short on drama in the political ranks.

William Thompson, a former council member who also resigned last week, said he saw many times when Eller was belittled by her brother, Josh Wyatt, who is stepping in as mayor.

Thompson said he decided to resign to spend more time with his three sons during baseball season but that he also was tired of the bickering among council members on everything from paving projects to office policies.

"All the arguing going on is one thing," he said Monday. "Just little things that we shouldn't even be arguing about."

For his part, the incoming mayor acknowledged the disputes but said he had hoped the factions could reach a solution.

"I think we got into two groups and one wanted to go one way, and one wanted to go another," said Wyatt, whose wife, Ellen, also sits on the council. "I guess one group gave up."

He denied the allegations that he bullied Eller or any other members.

"All we did was disagree with her," he said. "I never belittled or berated in any way."

He admitted, though, that the resignations probably reflect poorly on the town.

With the two resignations, the council is down to three members. The city charter dictates that, as the mayor pro tempore, Wyatt should become mayor. It states that his council slot and Thompson's old slot will be filled with appointees from the council. Council member Connie Short resigned in November and was replaced by Holly Burrage.

City Clerk Joy Hampton said she had taken applications for Short's vacant seat over the winter and that Burrage was brought on because she turned in a formal resume and attended a council meeting.

"She was the only one who went so far as to do that," Hampton said.

Audit led to Argument

When Eller was elected she was joined by four new council members, including Thompson, her brother and sister-in-law. When she took office at 29 years old, she became the first woman and youngest person to serve as Lyerly's mayor.

In her resignation later, Eller, who has a master's degree in accounting, cited a "lack of concern" over the town's audit findings as a factor in her decision.

The city's 2009 financial audit report was released in September and suggested more internal controls be put in place to prevent potential misuse of the town's money.

"Without the implementation of internal controls there is an increased risk of the misappropriation of funds," the report states.

And that's where some of the disputes originated, according to Wyatt.

The council and mayor decided to take away council members' authority to sign city checks. According to Wyatt, however, Eller wanted to go farther and, at one point, even had council members barred from the city clerk's office to try to put distance between the council and the city's money.

The audit report recommends separating duties whenever possible. But Wyatt said the move was not practical because the clerk's office is one of the few places in town where city officials have any office space.

"We need access to the documents and things," said Wyatt. "I hoped we could compromise on it, but we couldn't."

Hampton said there's been a lot to talk about over the last few months regarding city employees, including her, but she's optimistic looking forward.

"It's going to be just fine," she said. "We come to work and just do our jobs."

Wyatt said it was a little odd running the city with his wife and sister, but he said the family had decided to keep personal and professional differences separate.

"We agreed that we may disagree, but we leave it at City Hall," he said.

Contact staff writer Andy Johns at ajohns@timesfreepress.com or call 423-757-6324.