Varnell councilwoman's controversial actions to block a vote ruled legal

Varnell councilwoman's controversial actions to block a vote ruled legal

August 17th, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

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.

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

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Varnell City Councilwoman Ashlee Godfrey's abrupt exit from Tuesday night's city council meeting was legal.

In the middle of the meeting, Godfrey tried to block a vote by Councilmen Jan Pourquoi and David Owens to put a referendum on the Nov. 7 ballot. The referendum would have asked voters if they wanted to eliminate the police department. It also asks if they want to eliminate their 2.4 mills of property taxes.

Godfrey said the referendum should not tie the two issues together. Pourquoi said it was necessary, that people should know their property taxes will drop as a result of cutting the $300,000-a-year department. The deadline to put any referendum on the ballot is Sept. 2.

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On Tuesday, Godfrey first tried to block the vote by telling Pourquoi and Owens they legally could not pass a resolution like that in one meeting. She said they could only introduce the item Tuesday, then vote on it at the next meeting — when it would be too late to actually put the referendum on the ballot.

Asked why that was the case, Godfrey referred to a section of the city charter. Then, City Attorney Terry Miller explained the rule had been changed in 1994.

Upon learning this, Godfrey announced she was leaving the meeting at the Varnell City Gym. The charter states elected officials cannot take any sort of action without at least three council members present. In the last two months, council members Sheldon Fowler and Andrea Gordy resigned, meaning all three remaining members have to be at a meeting.

Godfrey's exit stopped the vote cold. A crowd hoping to protect the police department cheered. Pourquoi and Owens, meanwhile, rushed to Miller, asking if Godfrey could really do that.

Miller's answer? He wasn't sure. He hadn't seen a move like that before.

On Wednesday, Georgia Municipal Association Spokeswoman Amy Henderson said Godfrey, in fact, could leave a meeting in the middle.

"That is one way to do it," she said.

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Henderson added: "If you don't have a quorum, the meeting can continue. They just can't take any action. They can't vote on stuff."

Miller did not return multiple calls seeking comment Wednesday. Pourquoi and Owens, meanwhile, were still confused. Pourquoi said Godfrey should not be able to exit like that. Once a quorum is established, he said, the meeting should continue.

Technically, he believes the meeting never ended. It's still running right now.

"There is no reason for the vote not to take place, even if Ms. Godfrey is not there," he said. "We had a quorum set at the beginning. Her exit is motivated by political reasons, not for having a heart attack or something."

Minutes after the meeting, Godfrey returned to the gym, even as she said she was no longer participating. Pourquoi thought that was odd. He also criticized those in attendance who cheered Godfrey as she left.

"It's an ongoing obstruction of the democratic process," he said. "These are the types of things you see in a banana republic and the Congo and Bangladesh and places like that. It's sad to see actions like that in the United States of America."

Godfrey said after the meeting that residents in attendance did not want a referendum on the ballot, and the other council members were ignoring the people.

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