Fearing for her family's safety, Varnell, Ga., city councilwoman resigns

Fearing for her family's safety, Varnell, Ga., city councilwoman resigns

Mayor cancels meeting after failure to make quorum

July 25th, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Breaking News

Citizens of Varnell express their joy as the city council meeting is canceled due to low attendance of council members Tuesday, July 25, 2017, at the Varnell City Gym in Varnell, Ga. The Varnell City Council were meeting to decide whether or not to eliminate its police department.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

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VARNELL, Ga. — One elected official resigned; another said she had a family emergency. And just like that, Tuesday's city council meeting was canceled.

The announcement — to an audience of angry residents in the Varnell city gym — was yet another episode in the soap opera of Varnell, a small town with a population of about 1,800. And in this drama, for the last month, the audience has overwhelmingly cast three elected officials as the villains.

Following Councilman Sheldon Fowler resigning in response to his June arrest, Andrea Gordy, David Owens and Jan Pourquoi all voted July 11 to disband the city's police department. They said it had a bad reputation for turning the city into a speed trap. They said it was a waste of $300,000 of public money. Instead, the Whitfield County sheriff's office could cover the city's 3 square miles.

But residents flocked to City Hall, calling for the resignation of the three council members. And Mayor Anthony Hulsey vetoed their vote July 13. Tuesday was supposed to be the council's first meeting since then. Gordy, Owens and Pourquoi could override the veto. Or they could do what they promised during a public forum last week: They could put a non-binding referendum on the November ballot.

The referendum would ask voters if they wanted to eliminate the police department, which consists of four full-time officers and five part-time employees. In exchange, the three council members promised, they would eliminate all property taxes.

Their plans began to unravel Monday. Bill Morgan, a former councilman, and his father, Ralph Morgan, who worked with the city for decades, sued the three council members. They claimed the July 11 vote violated the open meetings act because they advertised it merely as an opportunity to discuss personnel. They also claimed that Gordy was in violation of the city charter because she allegedly lives outside the city, in Rocky Face.

In response, Gordy resigned Tuesday afternoon. She said she was in fear for her family's safety. During previous meetings, some residents said they would follow her home from work to verify whether she lived in Varnell. Marcus Morris, the attorney representing the Morgans, posted an address where Gordy allegedly lives. He said he had pictures of her getting the mail there over several days.

"This was the best option for me to not be scared for my family," Gordy said, "to not have to deal with something every day on Facebook. They can have the gutter. I'm just not going to get on that level with anybody."

She said she was not in violation of the charter, that she only lived out of Varnell temporarily because she was going through an ugly divorce. Morris, however, said he has records showing she has lived in Rocky Face from December through this month. He called her claims of fear a "smokescreen to save face."

"To my knowledge, Ms. Gordy has not called any law enforcement authorities," Morris said. "She's not reported any threats, anything to my knowledge."

With Gordy's and Fowler's resignations, the council is down to three members: Owens, Pourquoi and Ashlee Godfrey, who is against eliminating the police department. All three remaining elected officials must show up for a meeting, or they do not have a quorum, as was the case Tuesday.

Hulsey told the crowd at the gym that Godfrey could not attend because of a family emergency. While she is still in the minority, her absence strikes a blow to any potential votes by the council. Voters won't choose Gordy's and Fowler's replacements until November.

Godfrey did not return multiple calls seeking comment Tuesday.

When Hulsey announced the meeting was canceled, Pourquoi stood up to leave. The crowd yelled and applauded. His eyes wide, Pourquoi stared at one particular woman who had leapt to her feet and waved her arms in the air.

"Bye-bye, baby!" Constance Jiles yelled. "Bye-bye, baby! Bye-bye! Bye-bye, Pourquoi!"

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

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This story was updated July 25 at 11:54 p.m. with more information.