The Highlands Town Board met at 4:00 P.M. on Wednesday, March 2, in a special called session to once again discuss a revision to Town ordinances and the Town Charter. The revisions would, in essence, give the Town Manager the authority to hire and fire the Police chief and the Planning Director/Zoning Administrator. The decision to call the special session was made too late to publish in local media but was posted, however, in Town Hall.
Discussion about these changes has been ongoing for several months. Currently, the Town Manager has hiring/firing authority over all Town personnel with the exception of those two. The Police Chief and the Planning Director/Zoning Administrator serve at the pleasure of the Town Board.
Commissioners Amy Patterson and John Dotson have been opposed to the change. Commissioners Gary Drake, Larry Rogers and Dennis DeWolf and Mayor David Wilkes favor it.
Originally, Town Attorney Bill Coward advised that to amend the Town Charter required a 4 to 1 vote for passage. Failure to achieve that type of majority would require the Board to vote again at the next meeting. At the first vote, the result was 3 to 2. Prior to the second vote, Commissioner Patterson pointed out illegalities in the proposed verbiage, thus putting off the vote. As a result, Coward told the Board that it must start the process over again. Wednesday night’s meeting was to have been the first step in that process.
Since the changes were discussed at the 4:00 P.M. meeting with nothing resolved, Mayor David Wilkes said the matter should be eliminated from the evening’s agenda. Commissioner Patterson objected, making a motion that the Board approve the original agenda. The motion carried 4 to 1 with Commissioner Drake voting no.
A large crowd of Highlands’ residents attended the 7:00 P.M. meeting, many of whom spoke against the change. No one in the audience spoke in favor of it. Former Planning Board member Pat Taylor read a statement as follows:
“The citizens of Highlands want an open government of checks and balances with the ultimate responsibility falling to our elected officials. As I have stated before, if you as the Board want to give the manager the power to fire employees charged with upholding the laws of the state and town ordinances, the Zoning Administrator and Police Chief, these employees should have the opportunity to state their position in the presence of the Manager and the Board prior to a termination decision. Your unwillingness to include such a policy in a proposed ordinance would suggest a hidden agenda that could put the town back in the situation we were in with regard to the Cooley termination. In a closed session you denied Mr. Cooley the chance to appear before you, yet you felt the need to give him, as one commissioner recently revealed, a 30,000 taxpayer dollar severance.
“In your 4:00 P.M. session, Commissioner DeWolf expressed the hope of insuring open communication between town employees and the Board. This modest proposal of allowing these department heads to appear before you prior to termination would go a long way in promoting communication and fairness. For that matter, why not provide that option to any town employee facing termination? While some may argue that this employee option would undermine the authority of the Town Manager, I believe it would make for a stronger process. If the employee facing termination decided not to appear before you, it would imply that they (sic) were not disputing their (sic) termination. If the employee did appear before the Board and the Board’s decision was to go forward with the termination, the actions of the Manager would be confirmed and verified.
“I believe the citizens of Highlands want their elected representatives to be continuously accountable for the operation of the Town. A statement was made at the last public hearing that under the proposed ordinance, the Town Board would fire the Town Manager if he made bad decisions and made mistakes. This after the fact approach is precisely what concerns citizens. It is a formula for potential lawsuits, destruction of careers and waste of taxpayer dollars.
“When it comes to governmental responsibility, accountability, checks and balances, five elected heads are better than one hired head. Please show that you are accountable to the people who elected you.”
Other members of the audience spoke in support of Taylor’s position, including long time resident, Jane Lewis. She said, “I completely agree with Pat (Taylor). The Board needs to remember that when it’s done, it’s done. You can’t go back. I appreciate what Buzz (John Dotson) and Amy (Patterson) are doing.”
During the meeting, Commissioner Patterson made a motion that the Town Attorney prepare a written version of changes to the Town Charter without deleting the sections dealing with the Board’s control of the Chief of Police. The motion carried 3 to 2 with Commissioners Drake and Rogers voting no. Then Commissioner Drake made a motion that the Town Attorney prepare a written version with all the changes included. That motion also carried 3 to 2 with Commissioners Patterson and DeWolf voting no. Both versions will be presented at the April 6 meeting.
Board approves Hudson Library entrance improvements
Members of the Hudson Library Board also attended the meeting. Board Chairman Robert E. Smith addressed the Commissioners, requesting approval to move forward with a 3-phase program to improve the entrance to the library. The three phases included:
1. Building a porte-cochere at the front entrance with a hardscape plan for the parking lot and sidewalk.
2. Improve the lighting at the entrance and in the parking lot and make the area ADA compliant.
3. Better visibility with a new logo and signage.
Paul Schmitt, of Paul Schmitt Architectural Design Studio PLCC, designed the improvement and presented a schematic to the Commissioners. The plan includes replacing the public sidewalk with brick pavers in keeping with the Town’s sidewalk plan. The sidewalk will form a circle at the parking lot entrance to allow for better signage and plantings. Schmitt proposes replacing the pedestal lights with 12-ft pole lighting.
The Board unanimously approved the plan and referred it to the Planning Board.
In other action, the Board:
• Heard a request from Tony Potts to review the Town’s position concerning electronic gaming. “Since the governor has expressed an interest in electronic gaming as a revenue source, we should not wait but be proactive in establishing rules and regulations for the Town of Highlands,” Potts said.
• Approved the final version of the Town’s animal control ordinance. Commissioners had approved the changes in the ordinance at its February 16 meeting (MCN, Feb. 24, 2011) but wished to see the final version in writing.
• Approved the final version of the sidewalk improvement at the intersection of 4th and Main Streets. Commissioners approved the project at the February 16 meeting with an estimated cost of $64,700.00. The final version approved by commissioner carried a proposed cost of $66,302.00.
• Heard a request from Jay Calloway to waive his requirement to hold a bond while performing work on his Highlands Greenway contract. Calloway said he had been unable to obtain a performance bond. In exchange for the waiver Calloway said he would deduct the cost of the bond, $2,700.00, from his bid. He also said he would redistribute $16,000.00 within the project. On the advice of Town Attorney, Bill Coward, the Board deferred a vote on the request until it could meet in closed session. Following the regular meeting, the Board met in closed session and decided to award the contract to Tate Landscaping, the second lowest bidder—pending approval of a performance bond within the next 20 days.
• Approved $5,000 expenditure to transport and build a concrete mounting slab so the Town can accept a generator donated by William Cheney through Macon County. Cheney originally donated the 250-kw Onan generator to the Community Bible Church 10 years ago. The Church no longer has a use for it. Highlands Parks & Recreation Dept. Director Selwyn Chalker says the generator will be installed at the Highlands Civic Center so it can be used during emergency disaster situations. Chalker reports that the generator has been well maintained, is in good shape and had only 30-40 hours of use on it.
• Approved reappointment of Linda Clark to the Planning Board and Dixie Barton to the Appearance Commission. Both of their terms had expired.
• Delayed approval of reappointing Thomas Craig to the Appearance Commission until clarification of prohibition of serving on two Boards could be obtained. Craig also serves on the Planning Board.