publication date: Sep 1, 2008
By John Fredericks / The Milton Beacon
When is a city not a city? When it’s called Milton, perhaps?
The city of Milton, Ga. came to fruition in January, 2007 amid great hope and fanfare. It was swept into city hood with an overwhelming 86 percent approval at the polls from Milton voters on July 18, 2006.
Milton, created out of unincorporated Fulton County, joined the new cities of Sandy Springs and Johns Creek. All three new cities were created by charters that passed the Georgia legislature after the Republicans took control of the Georgia House of Representatives in the November 2004 election.
North Fulton County House Republicans Joe Wilkinson (R-Sandy Springs), Mark Burkhalter (R-Alpharetta/Johns Creek) and Jan Jones (R-Roswell/Milton) were influential players in pushing for their city’s independence and in drawing up their new city charters. Once this was accomplished and elections of local officials were held in 2006 and 2007, not an inch of North Fulton County was left unincorporated.
The Big Vision: Milton County
The creation of these three North Fulton cities was designed to give local residents control over their own destiny while bringing decisions closer to voters. As Fulton County was stretched to the gills both geographically and financially in providing essential services, the idea was for the residents of each city to achieve a higher level of service and determine their own fate.
But key North Fulton state legislators had another goal in mind as well.
The creation of these cities was to be the prelude for the eventual creation of Milton County. Once all unincorporated areas of North Fulton were accounted for, and the cities showed they could indeed self govern, the pathway for the creation of Milton County could be paved. Georgia House Speaker Pro-Tem Burkhalter, a 16 year House veteran, calls the potential creation of Milton County, “The most important and most critical decision that will be made during my tenure of service in the Georgia House of Representatives.”
While the new cities of Johns Creek and Sandy Springs are operating with surprising efficiency and accord, Milton, now in its 20th month, is viewed as nothing short of a debacle in the eyes of some.
Business leaders and surrounding politicians say privately that the perception of Milton as a constantly dysfunctional government is an embarrassment, and they often openly ridicule its bevy of internal bickering. It has proven itself the scourge of commercial business interests who want to expand its restrictive sewer and low density zoning laws.
The trials and tribulations of Milton’s young history are well chronicled in the local press. There have been numerous ethics violation charges on all sides. The mayor’s powers were reigned in by Jones with the passage of a new charter after he took office. The mayor then wrote a letter to Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue protesting the charter change, claiming he had a majority of Council’s support. That support was disputed by council members and led to more ethics violation charges.
The entire city council went through an embarrassing and costly psychologically based team-building fiasco. Former city administrator Aaron Bovos, now the assistant city manager in Roswell, missed an insurance related paperwork deadline that cost the city $800,000 in state funding. Amid finger pointing on all sides, Bovos subsequently resigned. Add in 2007 city council meetings that often went on into the wee hours of the morning, public infighting and charges of city council members meddling with city staffer’s day to day execution of performing their duties and Milton’s government image took a pounding.
Milton’s defenders maintained these recurrent problems were simply first year growing pains run amok.
No Sewer Expansion
At the heart of most squabbles is Milton’s sewer policy. Currently, Milton’s sewer is limited to the Big Creek basin and its lines run along Highway 9, in Crabapple where Milton converges with Roswell and Alpharetta and along some areas of Howell Mill Road.
Milton Councilwoman Tina D’Aversa maintains that sewer is currently restricted to where it has been previously denoted by Fulton County. “Our constituents don’t want sewer expansion,” says D’Aversa. “We were elected to protect Milton from inappropriate commercial development,” she added. “There is only so much density that can come with septic tanks. If you expand sewer, then the only defense you have against density is our current zoning laws. Those laws can be changed by future councils.” D’Aversa is adamant. “We don’t want to become like Roswell or Alpharetta. We want to protect our land use.”
Seemingly undeterred in the face of this defensive posture, developers keep petitioning the Milton Council in futile attempts to add sewer lines to their property. D’Aversa said it’s all about money. “If you own a property one half mile from Highway 9, sewer expansion will dramatically increase the commercial value of your property. The problem is that it will also encourage density and change the face of our community. The bottom line is we don’t want sewer extension beyond where it is now. It is our one safeguard to protect Milton as we know it.”
2007 Municipal Elections Not The Panacea
In a bold effort to eradicate the perception of internal shenanigans, and to address what he saw as backroom political maneuvering amongst two of his four consistent council opponents, Milton Mayor Joe Lockwood supported a slate of new candidates in the 2007 municipal elections. He backed newcomers Bert Hewitt and Alan Tart in a risky play to oust incumbents Rick Mohrig and Neal O’Brien, who were first elected in 2006 to one year terms. Lockwood’s gutsy gambit paid off as Hewitt and Tart trounced his two political nemeses in the November 2007 election by nearly two to one.
The two new incoming council members were positioned by Lockwood as the panacea for better governance and harmony. 2008 was to be a very different story in Milton. Lockwood put time limits on council speeches during meetings and got a midnight council meeting curfew passed. Lockwood then hired an experienced City Manager, Billy Beckett, from Fayetteville, to run the city. Beckett came to Milton with an impressive resume and his hiring was heralded as a coup by city officials.
Milton’s city charter calls for a strong city manager in its form of government. That’s why the $800,000 error and the subsequent revolving door at the position have had such magnified importance.
“The city manager under our system is the city’s CEO,” Lockwood said. “The council should act as an oversight committee that sets strategic direction and holds people accountable, like a board of directors in a company. This is a business and needs to be run like one.”
Beckett was seen initially as a stabilizing force for the city, but five months later the wheels came off again. Beckett resigned suddenly last month amid a flurry of claims and counter claims, and one Milton Councilman, Bill Lusk, went so far as to demand a recall of recalcitrant city council members.
Lockwood coined Beckett, “An effective leader and a great team builder who had the city on the right track.” He said, “Beckett was getting things done. We saw eye to eye on the key issues and his leaving is unfortunate. He was a real asset to Milton.”
Tart called Beckett, “unprofessional,” and, “incompetent.” He opined that Beckett’s resignation was a smokescreen for sewer extension proponents. Tart said, “Beckett said there was a divided council on sewer extension. This is false. He claimed we had to extend sewer to attract more commercial development in Milton to increase our tax base to survive as a city financially. I asked for numbers and facts to substantiate that claim and he resigned. He had threatened to quit numerous times prior to this so it came as no surprise to me.”
D’Aversa claimed Beckett had not always gotten his facts straight. “He communicated some information that was just inaccurate,” she said.
Beckett, frustrated at what he believed was incessant council meddling in his job, blamed his departure on three Milton Council members: Tart, Julie Zahner-Bailey and D’Aversa.
D’Aversa said she was offended by Beckett’s characterization and said, “He tried to pit council members against each other and he took sides. He had a different agenda on sewer expansion than a majority of council and a majority of our citizens.” D’Aversa claimed his departure was not sudden. “There was mounting tension for months,” she said. Asked about Beckett’s complaints of meddling, D’Aversa admitted, “There may be some truth to that, but it is not from me.” D’Aversa countered that, “It boiled down to Billy being threatened by council’s [wishes]." She concluded, “I am not interested in extending sewer beyond where it is. [Nobody] elected Beckett.”
Tart, in a parting shot regarding Beckett said, “Our citizens deserve better than Billy Beckett.”
Lockwood admitted that some council members routinely get deeply involved with the minutia of every issue that comes up, no matter how minor. “This approach can be suffocating to city executives,” Lockwood lamented.
In a bizarre twist of fate only befitting Milton, residents’ city property tax bills hit their mailboxes just as the news of Beckett’s resignation and the accompanying claims and counter claims were made public. This stoked citizen impatience and a new flurry of angry emails were fired off.
A Flawed City from the Start?
Tracing the city’s troubles may go back to its roots, its charter, and its first election.
One inherent flaw in Milton’s creation is its primarily residential nature. There is only a minor commercial presence. On the surface, such a heavily dominated residential land use area may not have made sense to become its own entity. However, for Milton County to become a reality, key North Fulton County state legislators believed that none of North Fulton could continue to be unincorporated and be dependent on Fulton County for essential government services, like police and fire. This reality drove support for their independence from area legislators who may have otherwise been more circumspect.
The second problem may be the charter – although city council candidates are elected at large they have to live in certain geographical boundaries, or districts, to run. This political reality may lend itself to very territorial representation from individual city council members. The charter also waters down the mayor’s authority, as compared to Johns Creek, which makes it tougher for any Milton mayor to lead the city in a chief executive-like fashion. Many insiders familiar with the situation credit the mayoral powers in the Johns Creek charter as a key component of that city’s early success.
Then there is Lockwood himself. Unlike Johns Creek, where Mayor Mike Bodker won with Burkhalter’s enthusiastic support, Lockwood crushed Jan Jones’ hand-picked candidate, George Ragsdale in the city’s inaugural mayoral race. This led to some initial challenges in their working relationship to get the city off the ground. Some claim this was the catalyst to Jones’ charter changes last year stripping the mayor of some authority. Jones has emphatically denied this charge.
Lockwood, having failed in his first attempt to right the ship, is now going to plan B. “Unlike the perception, we are well on our way to making Milton a top-notch government,” he said. He added, “We all want the same things for Milton. Unfortunately, emotions sometimes run high and things go awry.”
Lockwood defined his role as, “Working with Council to shepherd through the best decisions for our residents.” He said, “My vision going forward is that I act as the liaison between Council and staff. I am going to ask Council to let me be the conduit for improved communication. Our communication has to be respectful, purposeful and meaningful.”
Lockwood said better teamwork is in order. “We need to work together and give each other the benefit of the doubt. Everyone’s heart is in the right place. We need to focus more on making the right decisions for the right reasons and less on personalities and the crisis of the week.”
From a management standpoint Lockwood said his plan is to hire an interim city manager while he searches for the right fit. “That might take four to six months,” he predicted. Lockwood summed it up. “I am determined to move us forward and put some of these more contentious episodes behind us.”
Status of Milton County Effected perhaps
The fear of North Fulton legislators is that the inability of the city of Milton to function smoothly as a new municipal government may hamper their effort to gain independence for Milton County. To become a reality, Milton County advocates will need to secure two-thirds support in both chambers of the Georgia State Legislature to gain approval for a constitutional amendment to authorize the new county. An impaired Milton city may be just the ammunition a few opponents need to keep the county initiative off the 2010 ballot. “One or two votes may make the difference,” said one area legislator.
Several area House members said they were now monitoring Milton’s progress more closely as a result. “The stakes are too high to ignore the situation,” said one. “It’s on our radar screen.”
“All local governments have growing pains,” offered D’Aversa. “If we could all keep our mouths shut and stop airing our dirty laundry in the press we would all be a lot better off.”