Unity biggest feat for 3 new to Warner Robins council

chwright@macon.comDecember 28, 2012 

WARNER ROBINS -- All many Warner Robins residents wanted for Christmas last year was peace at City Hall.

A year later, their wish seems to have come true. With new City Council members Carolyn Robbins, Mike Davis and Mike Brashear on board, there have been few public disagreements among council. The three neophytes said in a recent interview they’ve accomplished a more respectable image of council.

“The majority of the comments I’ve gotten are, ‘You’re not in the paper, so you must be doing a good job,’ ” Davis said.

Taking on harmony

Until this year, Warner Robins City Council and Mayor Chuck Shaheen were known for frequent public battles.

Headlines boasted of councilmen’s wisecracks about a cotton field, a councilman’s constant run-ins with police and divisive decisions coupled with childish retorts.

Campaigning for the 2011 election, all council candidates said their biggest goal if elected would be fostering harmony at City Hall.

When the votes were tallied, the job went to Robbins, taking the Post 2 seat that had been held by Tom Simms Jr.; Brashear, taking the Post 4 seat that had been held by Bob Wilbanks; and Davis, taking John Williams’ Post 6 seat.

“The biggest accomplishment that we had this year is we quit being the main story every day,” said Davis. “We have our disagreements, but ... we do it civilly.”

Williams and Wilbanks were the two councilmen who drew the most headlines in their final two years, the former for his arrest record and the latter for red-faced quarrels with Shaheen.

Asked specifically about their relationship with the mayor, the new council members acknowledged it wasn’t immediate harmony.

“It started out a little rocky, but it’s gotten much better,” Brashear said. “Each one of us is a little different.”

The year hasn’t been without its differences of opinions. One of the first was over a city employee payroll adjustment.

Shaheen and Councilman Daron Lee, backed by financial expert opinions, wanted to wait until the new fiscal year in July. But the three new council members, who all campaigned on needing to pass the adjustment as soon as possible, had the backing of councilmen Paul Shealy and Mike Daley.

They won a 5-1 vote to enact the adjustment in April.

During the preceding debates, tense words were exchanged, but no public bickering ensued.

Davis artfully described the new public image of City Council during those not-so great times.

“We look like a duck floating across the water, but we’re paddling like the devil underneath,” he said.

Reality

Davis, a former fireman, and Robbins, a former city clerk, said their years with the city prepared them for their new posts, but adjustments were needed to become policy makers.

“It’s really different on the other side,” Robbins said. “Whereas before you were serving the people, now you’re supposed to be making decisions for the people. You’re still serving them,” but in a different way.

Brashear had four months of council experience before this year. He was appointed in 2007 to finish the term of Steve Smith, who took a job outside of the city.

“What most surprised me was the amount of time that it takes to represent your people and to do so knowledgeably. It takes a lot of time,” Brashear said.

It’s not just walking into council chambers and voting up or down on the list of measures. They have outside meetings and groundbreakings, residents to talk to, documents to review.

And council is a part-time job.

There had been a meeting day once a week, but council halved meetings this year. Precouncil and council meetings are now held the first and third Mondays of the month.

“When we were doing the Thursday night thing (for precouncil), we were doing something every week, so you could never go on a week’s vacation without missing a meeting,” Davis said, adding he’s not complaining about the duties of a council position he asked for.

Precouncil meetings are now quick reviews of the agenda, sometimes with no discussion of items.

Brashear said precouncil is supposed to be a review of the agenda, not the work session it had become. Real work sessions would be helpful every few months though, he said.

While Robbins agreed she doesn’t want Thursday work sessions again, she said she needs the agenda for personal review before Monday.

Working together

Less public discourse hasn’t meant council isn’t talking at all. They’ve passed far more undivided votes after obviously talking among themselves before voting.

Council members meet below the quorum of four, which would require a public meeting, to discuss items and ideas. They privately hash it out and then bring it up in public meetings, sometimes giving opinions.

The three newbies said it’s not a tactic to block out the public but rather to bring council together and pitch ideas. It allows members time to talk things through without the media noting every back and forth, as well as receive needed information to decide if an idea is viable, they said.

Open meetings experts said state law isn’t explicit about whether these small-group meetings are legal. While the law prohibits intentional evasion or avoidance of a public meeting, it doesn’t explain the prohibition.

“The recent changes to Georgia’s open meetings act are designed to close any loopholes used by an agency to avoid the quorum requirement,” Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, wrote in an e-mail. “In fact, there is new language in the act that specifically instructs public agencies not to avoid a quorum, and any effort to do so is illegal.”

Brashear and Robbins said this week if they’re informed the meetings are not allowed, they would stop them.

The budget season was the only time residents raised questions about the lack of public discussion this year, and none have called foul the behind-the-scenes discussions during public comment periods at meetings.

Questioned specifically about the budget process that some residents said was not transparent enough, the three said part of their job is to answer questions.

“If you have a question about it, call,” Davis advised residents. “If something’s bothering you, call.”

Each Warner Robins council member, and many department directors, have city-issued phones and tablets. Those phone numbers and e-mail addresses are open to the public.

Former councilman Wilbanks said last week he’s “a little torn” about the new face of council. Council has managed less public turmoil while voting their convictions, but the public is unaware of some issues behind the scenes that should be known, he said.

“When I was there, I thought it was part of my duty to let the public know what was going on,” Wilbanks said. “If there was something outrageous that I thought the public needed to know, I took the pressure.”

But Councilman Paul Shealy, whose term ends next year, said the new system of keeping arguments away from watchful eyes has “helped calm quite a bit.”

“They’ve given us a real good way of working together,” Shealy said, adding Davis’ and Robbins’ experience as city employees has been invaluable.

The new system has helped move projects along, the new council members said.

“The only way you are going to be able to get things done is if you work together,” Robbins said.

Shaheen, after two months of requests for an interview about the year, sent a one-page document through spokeswoman Ruby Hamb-Holmes on Friday afternoon summarizing 2012.

In it, he wrote that the year has been “filled with new undertakings and growth for both me and the City of Warner Robins.”

He noted the city is financially stable, has completed the environmental study for the Georgia-Regional Aerospace Maintenance Partnership, established the Warner Robins Hall of Fame, began an upgrade to the Sandy Run Wastewater Treatment Plant and renamed First Street to Armed Forces Boulevard.

“Our biggest struggle this year has been dealing with the increase of costs and services but through our resilient partnerships, a sturdier and brighter 2013 lies ahead,” the summary stated.

Brashear, Davis and Robbins said they are most proud of the payroll study adjustment and the progress on the law enforcement center this year.

The three new council members declined to talk specifically about the agenda for the coming year, though Davis said next year will feature recreation projects, a completed police headquarters and a new fire station.

“It’s really taken the better part of this year just to identify those things that we feel like are priorities and putting those things in a sequence that says, ‘These are the things that we are going to go after first,’ ” Brashear said.

“And they’re going to get done.”

To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.

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