Group therapy was placed on the agenda after feuding, ethics charges and a $900,000 mistake.
By DOUG NURSE / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution / Published on: 08/06/07
It was going to be so great — a new city forged under a unified banner.
Lower taxes. Better services. Controlled growth.
A little more than a year ago, residents voted overwhelmingly to form the city of Milton out of the northernmost corner of Fulton County. A group of affluent, mostly conservative Republicans seemed to hold much common ground.
But the ink on the city charter had barely dried before the bickering began. On Dec. 21, three weeks after Milton's official birth, the mayor and City Council clashed bitterly over who would be named mayor pro tem.
They were just getting warmed up.
"It's kind of embarrassing," said Cindy Hollingsworth, who helped lead the efforts to form the city. "It seems a little childish. The other cities don't seem to have this problem. I'm still glad we did it, but I didn't envision it would be like this."
The record is replete with signs of dysfunction.
• City Council members have publicly accused each other of deception and unprofessional conduct. Despite the hiring an organizational psychologist and holding two team-building sessions, the rift seems intractable. The council often splits 4-3 on decisions, with Mayor Joe Lockwood in the minority.
• After almost 18 hours of closed-door discussions last week, the council has yet to decide the fate of City Manager Aaron Bovos over his role in the loss of $900,000 in taxes because of a missed state deadline. Bovos didn't tell the council about the mistake until months after it was discovered.
• The mayor and state Rep. Jan Jones, the city's legislative founder, have feuded in community newspaper columns over a variety of topics, such as city franchise fees and changes to the city charter.
• Two council members were the subject of ethics charges, which were thrown out by the city ethics board. But the complainant has taken it to the state Ethics Commission. The mayor also has been the target of a campaign-related state ethics complaint.
• A member of Milton's ethics board was named in an ethics complaint by another member of the ethics board.
The tone was set at one of the first City Council meetings when the mayor pushed for council member Tina D'Aversa to be mayor pro tem. But the majority wanted council member Karen Thurman.
In January, an angry Lockwood sent an e-mail to the council complaning about its "lack of respect" and threatened political reprisals.
The division on the council has manifested itself on several issues, including whether to put the city attorney under the city manager (they didn't), whether to hire an aide for the mayor (they didn't), whether to allow sewer in the southeastern part of the city (they dropped it), and whether to overrule the mayor and support changes to the city charter (they did).
All of which has left people shaking their heads.
"I was there when it was positive," said Greg Mishkin, a member of the team appointed by the governor to lay the groundwork for the new city. "It's frustrating to see things turning the wrong way after all the work we did."
Jon Carroll, a resident who frequently attends council meetings, observed the council seems to be consumed with infighting."They seem to take everything personally," Carroll said. "They haven't developed a tough political skin. You can tell the tension is starting to weigh on them."
Thursday night, planning commissioner Bob Moheb addressed the City Council, calling for unity:
"There came a time when we began to feel a little embarrassed to live in the city of Milton," Moheb said. "We need to pull together, to work together, to get over some of this stuff."
Today the city ethics board will hear a complaint against Mayor Lockwood, filed by Moheb.
A YEAR IN MILTON
July 18, 2006 – Residents of northwest Fulton County approve cityhood with 86 percent of the vote.
Sept. 2006 – The Governor's Commission for the city of Milton hires Aaron Bovos away from new city of Sandy Springs to serve as acting city manager. Bovos works for free until the city of Milton is official.
Nov. 7 – Five members of the City Council are elected, three without opposition.
Dec. 1 – Milton becomes a city.
Dec. 21 – Council members clash over who will be mayor pro tem.
Jan. 1 – The city misses a deadline with the state to claim its share of insurance-related taxes, about $900,000 the city probably won't collect.
Jan. 11 – The council votes 4-3 to eliminate position of aide to the mayor.
Feb. 1-2 – The City Council has a team-building session with Carl Vinson Institute of Government staff.
March – The City Council is divided over whether to keep city attorney Mark Scott after Bovos complains the lawyer's billing lacks details. Scott survives on a 4-3 vote, and changes the way he does his billing.
April 18 – An ethics complaint is filed against council members Bill Lusk and Neal O'Brien.
May 14 – Mayor Joe Lockwood writes Gov. Sonny Perdue that the city opposes proposed legislative changes to the city charter, igniting a council battle that he ultimately loses.
June 7 – Planning commissioner Bob Moheb files an ethics complaint against Lockwood for allegedly misrepresenting the position of the city to the governor.
July 10 – The city cancels a group therapy session with an organizational psychologist because it would have to be conducted in public.
July 16 – The city Ethics Board throws out ethics complaint against two council members.