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Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Great Milton Melt Down

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.”

Growing Pains

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.

Plan B

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.”

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

Asked about Beckett’s complaints of meddling, D’Aversa admitted, “There may be some truth to that, but it is not from me.”

Unfortunately, what we have here can only be described as a BALD FACE LIE.

Anonymous said...

D'Aversa is always the first council member to cry "foul" when criticized. It is ALWAYS someone else's fault.

Using strong words of denial does not eliminate or lessen the responsibility she shares in the present debacle.

Perhaps, "she doth protest too much".

Anonymous said...

Love how the Professor(td) wraps up the article by saying they should just keep their mouths shut....after she got her say....

Anonymous said...

If there "is some truth to that, but it is not from me", who do you think she is talking about?

Anonymous said...

Thanks again "Alan"!

Anonymous said...

Julie Zahner Bailey is the one and only problem since day one in Milton.

No damaging quotes from Julie, even though it was all HER battle. Joe has no idea how to handle Julie.

Tina and Tart have just been taught to follow Julie's lead. Without her, they would be useless.

Anonymous said...

Julie Zahner Bailey is the one and only problem since day one in Milton.

No damaging quotes from Julie, even though it was all HER battle. Joe has no idea how to handle Julie.

Tina and Tart have just been taught to follow Julie's lead. Without her, they would be useless.

Anonymous said...

TINA - You were never elected either! No one ran against you!

Anonymous said...

The council has their head in the sand. They are on the path to run this city into the ground. Have we seen any traffic improvements? Any parks? We would have been much better offf as part of Alpharetta or Roswell. House values already effected by the economy will tumble if this city continues on its curent path.

Anonymous said...

Recall JZB and her partners now. No one Joe hires will be willing to work with her or her obnoxious tactics.

Anonymous said...

Who is the "professor"?

Anonymous said...

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.”

And who's monitoring THEM?

Anonymous said...

What short memories people have.

Last year in the blogging on Access Milton and all around Milton Lusk, Thurman, O' Brien and Mohrig had to go - they had forced out Aaron Bovos, colluded with Jan Jones to change the charter against the Mayor, brought ethics charges against the him not to mention a host of other very low and despicable activities (sneaking around City Hall Offices stealing documents) they were all involved in.

Back then it was 4 against 3 (Joe, Tina, Julie) and the situation so unbearable that our Mayor rallied the forces to change the council at election time. He even wrote a letter to citizens that was blazened across newspapers imploring them to vote in favor of a changed council. And change it did. We had two new Council members in Alan and Burt and a third re-elected in Julie all promising to maintain the rural nature of our city and keep Sewer out.

This year it's once again 4 against 3 - the only difference is that the Mayor has changed sides - suddenly Lusk, Thurman and Beckett are Joe's new best friends, and Burt has obviously forgotten his election commitments, as the 4 of them calculatedly set about the task of extending sewer into Milton. Why... because Lynne Reiley says it should be so with her 'new' maps. And of course Lynne is very trustworthy - she's never betrayed any citizen!!! Yeah right!

And so much for an impartial City Manager on the Sewer issue. Don't for a minute think that all residents respected Billy - on the contrary he was viewed as arrogant and condescending by residents, many of whom work so hard, and give up so much of their time on our City Committees.

Isn't it ironic that the 3 council member's (for all their faults) that are trying to do what they promised as regards protecting against sewer (as voted for by over 80% of the residents) are now the ones being treated with such disrespect.

There is such unbelievable hypocrisy at play here both on the Council and on these blogs.

It's DISGUSTING!

Anonymous said...

professortd

Anonymous said...

Ok last poster. What does 4 to 3 have to do with it? What is your point with "Joe's new friends"?

On the Beckett issue just because Joe, Burt, Karen, and Bill supported a qualified city manager, that dosent necessarily make them new friends, but only responsible people elected to make the right decisions for our city.

Alan has proven what a lunatic he is and no one would expect Julie to make a rational decision on anything unless it was to be against something. so there should be no suprizes on this issue. Not sure about where Tina went?

I was a big supporter of Joe's and Burt's last year, and even supported Julie since Joe did. The whole reason that change was needed last year is so that there wasn't a 4 to 3 vote on everything, with the same 4 to 3.
That dosent mean that there will be times that on a 4 to 3 vote the sides mix up. That is healthy and politically correct.

As far as the sewer issue. Do you something that the rest of us dont? I dont think I saw where there was a meeting and Joe and Burt voted to extend sewer? Please let us know and I will check the previous agenda's.

You are probably right about there being some residents and commitee menbers who did not like Billy Beckett, but that is no suprize as I would be willing to bet they were mostly Julie pups and they wouldn't respect anyone that is reasonable, educated, experienced and knew what the city needed to be successful to all. These people are like children that want to act up in class and chew gum, but then get upset when the teacher reminds them of the rules.

Anonymous said...

The mayor continues to strongly and publicly support an employee who has publicly stated his pro-sewer stance and criticized certain council members who have stood the strongest on the no-sewer policies. That's enough to show a shift in the mayor's position.

BTW-- I supported Joe during his election because he supported Julie.

Anonymous said...

More Bill Bailey trash talk.

Anonymous said...

Nope. Wrong again! Sounds like your Bailey-envy is spinning out of control. When you start frothing at the mouth, stop typing and call 911. Daisy will speed to your rescue and give you mouth-to-mouth.

Anonymous said...

Typical "Bailey nutcase" trying to tie sewer to every issue. This is about a couple of wacko's running off a qualified city manager and making the citizens pay the price.

Read what the experts say people. The employees at Milton don't make the sewer policies, the council and mayor does.

Anonymous said...

The Three Divas are out of control. They unfortunately believe they are experts on all subject matter in the city when in fact they are not. It is frightening to think that they can continue to make our city such a laughing stock in the news. You'd think they'd learn.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget to claim your prize for contributing to Milton being a laughing stock with your namecalling, irrational posts.

Anonymous said...

Of course Beckett is pro sewer! It’s always about money.

It appears that a City Council meeting set for this Monday will grant Billy his parting wish. Thanks to Beckett a new agreement between Fulton County and Milton regarding providing sewer service will eliminate past controversy over the “no inter-basin transfer agreement” by dropping that clause completely.

The new IGA also gives Fulton County authority to provide services all those same land lots presented August 4 and contested without stating what specific parcels were granted sewer prior to the 2006 IGA. (FYI - These land lots are all in the Etowah Basin.)

At the Aug. 4 City Council meeting Riley was asked to list the properties that had been granted sewer prior to Milton becoming a city. That has not been done. With the new IGA, it won’t matter. The new IGA is a blanket approval for whole land lots, without any specifics. In effect it opens up Milton to tremendous legal battles (and costs) with developers if Milton opposes sewer in the future. This new IGA agreement eliminates Milton's ability to set any legal president for preventing future expansion of the sewer.

It was apparently too much work for Beckett to list individual parcels Fulton agreed to sewer before 2006. When Riley was asked to provide them, she gave a flip answer, “you can find them on the internet.”

How can a city serve its citizens when it doesn’t have the information necessary to make intelligent decisions? If Beckett is too lazy to do his job and gives out false information, then let him go. He states positions without the facts to back them. Thanks but no thanks.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Accessmilton Admin said...

Please be advised that Accessmilton.com does not tolerate any type of off color language. The following comment has been reposted with edits applied:

Wow, she just dosent give up? Hopefully sewer will get rammed down her throat so she will not continue to be such a disruptive part of our city.

She can blame Beckett but the rel truth is the imbalance in hers and Bill's life.

And yes she will say she didnt write the above post but she is behind it even if she had Bill or Alan Tart do it. You two just dont have any XXXXX do you?

How does it feel to be her "boy"!

Anonymous said...

Mis Daisy here. I don't know why you are so worried about posting the word XXXXX. If I had some XXXXX I would be licking them right now?

PS: Anyone seen Bill Lately? Last night he wouldn't come out of the shed, something about had to make up and spread the "sewer conspirousy"?

Anonymous said...

OF COURSE JULIE WROTE THE ABOVE BLOG.

I know this for a FACT because I only got half way through it and got too bored to actually finish it.

Happens every time.

Anonymous said...

Thats why so many people quit reading her "e-blast"