Political tensions in Hoschton boiled over at a Dec. 5 council meeting as one of the town's newest council members became embroiled in a heated discussion with embattled Mayor Theresa Kenerly over the form of the meeting's agenda.
At the beginning of the meeting, Kenerly announced that the agenda looked a little different because city officials had discovered that a town ordinance which outlines the order of city council meetings didn't allow for the council to do the pledge, a prayer or have time for citizens input.
Because the Dec. 5 council meeting was a non-voting work session, Kenerly said the ordinance would have to be amended when the council held its regular meeting Dec. 9.
But the council was unable to make that vote Dec. 9 after councilman Jim Cleveland left the meeting just before the item was to be voted on. Cleveland said it was his wife's birthday and they had dinner reservations. With that, he and his wife left the room.
The move left the council one member short and to amend a city ordinance, all council members have to be present.
A called meeting was scheduled for Dec. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at city hall to again try and vote to change the town's meeting ordinance.
What happened: At the Dec. 5 meeting, Kenerly and councilman Shantwon Astin had a lengthy, and sometimes heated, discussion about changing the ordinance.
"Our ordinance told us how we were to have an agenda," Kenerly said. "It was very old, but it does not have the pledge in it, it does not have a prayer in it and it does not have citizen input. So the only way we can change this ordinance is to vote on it Monday night."
But Astin, who had discovered the old ordinance language while reading through the city's codes, wasn't happy about waiting until Dec. 9 to deal with the situation, or to allow citizen input.
Astin wanted to know if there needed to be a motion to amend the agenda that night so that the council could go ahead and have a citizen input session.
"We're going over the agenda now, so why do I have to wait until Monday night?" he said.
Kenerly said that the vote would have to be held Monday night since that was the voting meeting.
"Because it's an ordinance, I can't go against the ordinance," she said.
Astin pushed back.
"How long have you been going against the ordinance?" he said in reference to past meetings where the council had allowed citizens input at work sessions.
Kenerly said she realized she'd been going against the ordinance in past meetings, but had been unaware that the ordinance existed until Astin pointed it out to her.
"I have (not followed the old ordinance), you're exactly right, but I cannot (go against it) now that its been brought to my attention, I cannot," she said. "Monday night, we can vote on it and get back to the way it was."
Astin wasn't satisified.
"So that means we're going to miss that whole citizen input session because it's been overshadowed — for how many years now?" he said.
Kenerly said she didn't know how long the city had not been following the ordinance.
Astin then turned to city administrator Dale Hall and asked why he hadn't noticed the ordinance about the meeting order.
"How did you miss it?" Astin asked. "How did you allow the same thing to go on for this long, but now, today, when citizen input is needed, we decide we're not going to do it. We're going to enforce the ordinance at this moment."
Kenerly then pointed out it was Astin who had brought the old ordinance to the council's attention in the first place.
"I did that and I said it and if I found it, how did you miss it, how did you miss it..." Astin began.
"Because I didn't look it up," she said.
"It's your job," Astin shot back.
Kenerly said she'd "love" to have the pledge, a prayer and citizen input, but that given the information Astin had found, she couldn't do it until the ordinance was changed.
"You have brought it to my attention so therefore, I have to do what the ordinance says," she said.
Astin continued to press and the discussion got heated as the two went back-and-forth, talking over each other.
"I'm not going to do this with you," Kenerly said at one point.
"You don't have to do anything with me," Astin said loudly.
The two continued to argue as Astin pointed out that even if the ordinance was changed, there would not be any citizen input at the council meetings for December.
"I can't help it, you brought it to my attention," Kenerly said. "I have to do what you brought to me. I can't just make up and do what I want to."
"You've been doing it," Astin replied.
As Kenerly continued to say she couldn't change the agenda, Astin interrupted again, this time shouting loudly.
"You're worried because I'm doing the job that I was elected to do by the citizens who put me here!" he shouted.
"You better lower your voice," Kenerly said.
"I don't have to lower anything," Astin replied.
"Yes you do," Kenerly said.
As Kenerly attempted to change the subject to the night's agenda items, Astin interrupted and said he wouldn't approve the agenda.
"We don't need you to approve," Kenerly shot back.
The non-vote: Following the Dec. 5 debate, city attorney Thomas Mitchell drafted two documents for the council to approve that would amend the old ordinance and allow the council flexibility to set its agenda in any way it wanted to.
But after Cleveland exited the meeting Dec. 9, Mitchell said the vote would have to wait until next month.
"Which pushes off the time for the citizens to give input once again," Astin said.
Kenerly then attempted to call Cleveland to ask him to return to the meeting for the vote, but he didn't answer his phone.
"Very slick, very slick," said Astin to nobody in particular.
He then wanted to know the procedure to call a special meeting. Mitchell read him the requirements and the council decided to set a called meeting for Dec. 11 at 6:30 p.m. to again take up the ordinance change.
Not the first signs: While the Dec. 5 meeting's exchange between Astin and Kenerly was heated, it wasn't the first time there had been signs of tension at recent council meetings.
Astin was sworn into his seat in mid-November following regular town elections. That election, however, was largely overshadowed by the ongoing recall controversy in the town that revolves around allegations that Kenerly had removed a job application from a black candidate for city administrator. Kenerly and Cleveland are facing a Jan. 14 recall vote in the town (see other story.)
Astin and Adam Ledbetter were elected to the council largely as a backlash against Kenerly and Cleveland.
Since taking office, Astin and Kenerly have had several council discussions in which they were clearly not on the same page. On Dec. 9, Astin and Ledbetter voted against two items on the agenda forcing Kenerly to break a tie (see other story.)