Three proposed amendments to the City of Winder’s charter that could substantially alter the city government drew a rebuke last week from Mayor David Maynard in an open letter before the author of the petitions shot back, accusing the mayor of “fear-mongering.”

The petitions and proposed charter amendments, which would require voter approval in a special-called referendum if they advance to that point, seek to: cap the city’s millage rate at a maximum of 3 mills; impose term limits of two four-year terms for the mayor and three four-year terms for city council; and, in the most expansive proposed change, allow for citizens to petition to “veto” or override any acts, ordinances or resolutions passed by the council.

The petition effort, being led by city resident Jessica Burton, stems from the council’s vote last month to essentially double the city’s millage rate to fund the fiscal year 2022 budget, a move city leaders have said is necessary to reduce the General Fund’s continued reliance on utility fund transfers. The tax hike drew strong backlash from residents, including Burton, at a series of public hearings, but the council ultimately voted 4-1 in favor of the increase.

Burton had initially drafted a petition to override the council's resolution adopting the increase and had vowed at an Aug. 3 council meeting to recall sitting council members who weren’t already up for re-election (Travis Singley and Kobi Kilgore) as well as Maynard. She later said she had been informed by city attorney John Stell that residents could only petition to amend the city charter.

Burton said this week that she and the rest of the group organizing the petition drive have until Oct. 26 to submit petitions to the city clerk. Signees must be a city resident and registered to vote within the city. At least 20% of the number of registered voters who were able to vote in the 2019 city election would have to sign the petitions in order to trigger a special election for the referendum, meaning they would need roughly 2,170 signatures.

“It is unfortunate and disappointing that we were unable to resolve this through the public hearings and had to make it to this point of needing to amend the charter in order to get our voices heard and respected,” Burton wrote in an email last month to city officials. “When the council and mayor refuse to bend to the will of the people, it is necessary to take such actions to remind elected officials that they are public servants, not rulers over their constituents.”

In his letter last week, Maynard took aim at the petitions and cautioned that city residents should take time to understand the implications of the charter amendments. He contended that implementing the 3-mill cap would jeopardize police and fire department funding and would severely limit the city’s ability to make improvements to its roads and borrow funds for various public safety and infrastructure improvements while eliminating “many services.”

Maynard’s harshest critique was of the citizens’ veto measure, which would allow citizens to follow the same petition process to initiate a referendum to overturn any council votes.

“This would amount to government by social media,” he wrote. “You would no longer be able to use your property as allowed by law because ‘the citizens’ can change the law. Job creation and economic development would cease. Businesses require certainty in law to operate. Without this certainty, businesses will take their jobs elsewhere and no new jobs will come to Winder.

“This petition for a citizen veto would create an unstable and chaotic city government. For example, every time someone receives a citation they could attempt to repeal the ordinance. Each effort to repeal an action of the city council would require the city’s citizens to fund the cost of the veto election and any associated legal action — driving up cost and driving down efficiency in operations and distracting the city from its mission of providing critical services.

“The city would no longer be able to contract with others because the veto would make any agreement uncertain. Suppliers, contractors and others would not be willing to make agreements or contracts with the city. The city would have great difficulty in obtaining needed supplies and services for the people of Winder.

In a Facebook response video, Burton claimed that Maynard deliberately mischaracterized the intent of the petitions and said the mayor “is trying to spread around a bunch of propaganda.”

“This is not a mayor who is not worried,” she said. “This is a mayor who seems very concerned at the fact that his power and refusal to listen to the citizens is being threatened. If he were not worried, he would not be doing this.”

Burton said the intent of the millage rate petition is not to cut police and fire department funding, but to oppose “wasteful spending.” And she said the citizens’ veto measure would not target property rights.

“This is not mob rule,” Burton said. “We live in a constitutional republic. I do not believe in pure democracy. There has to be some sort of political process in order to affect change within your communities.”

As for the debate on term limits, Maynard, who is in his third term as mayor and has twice been re-elected without opposition, claimed that imposing term limits would “remove” residents’ choice to elect whom they believe is “the best person for the job.”

“We already have term limits; they are called elections,” he said.

While the presidency is the only federal office that carries constitutional term limits, 36 states, including Georgia, have term limits on their governors, and 15 states have placed term limits on state legislators. Municipal and county-level term limits vary across the country, though there are currently no limits in Barrow County or its municipalities.

“Term limits are not a new thing,” Burton said in response to Maynard’s point. “Government is not a thing people are supposed to be making a career of.”

Burton said this week she did not have a firm number of signatures collected so far on the petitions but that she was planning a signing event at the St. Ives subdivision pool from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and eyeing other events as well. Residents are able to request copies of the petitions from the city clerk’s office.

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