Macon’s 15 City Council members have all been assigned to new committees for the next four years, but those choices were made under a cloud of suspicion that two of the three selection-committee members violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act.
Councilman Charles Jones was chosen Tuesday in a narrow vote over Councilman Henry Ficklin to join Council President James Timley and President Pro Tempore Larry Schlesinger -- who himself narrowly beat out Councilman Rick Hutto for the pro tem job -- on the selection committee.
Each of the 15 council members had filled out a sheet showing his or her preferred committee assignments. Timley also urged the selection committee to consider seniority, previous experience and professional knowledge, and attendance records.
Jones, however, said he’d stayed up late working out his choices, and pulled out a sheet bearing his “prayerfully considered” list.
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“I’ve already filled this thing out,” he said.
Schlesinger revealed that he, too, brought a predetermined list to the committee meeting.
Timley looked them over and said Jones’ and Schlesinger’s lists were identical.
“Something here is a little off-center,” Timley said. “We’ve gotten some comments that the two of you have already met.”
The identical lists tended to confirm that, he said.
“I want you to know it is a serious offense to violate open meetings law,” Timley said. He asked if Jones and Schlesinger had in fact met on both Wednesday and Thursday to agree upon assignments.
“We’re preachers. We meet all the time,” replied Jones, a Baptist minister. Schlesinger is a rabbi.
Councilwoman Elaine Lucas asked City Attorney Martha Welsh if such a private discussion violated state law.
“Two members of this particular committee would constitute a quorum,” and shouldn’t get together outside of a public meeting, Welsh told her.
Nevertheless, Welsh said the Thursday meeting should continue, since the legal remedy for an illegal meeting is to hold a subsequent public discussion and vote.
Lucas said the meeting should be halted until the legal issue was resolved.
City Internal Affairs Director Keith Moffett sat at the back of the room, and Timley asked him whether he’d met with Jones and Schlesinger in Mayor Robert Reichert’s office about their committee choices.
“Thank you for your question, Mr. Timley,” Moffett said with a pained smile. “We talked about a number of things yesterday morning.”
“I’m with Ms. Lucas,” Timley said. “I don’t see how we can continue with this process if it’s already been tainted.”
Jones argued that he’d spoken with many council members about their preferred assignments and that he’d made his decisions independently. He suggested that other council members were making accusations based on prior political grudges.
Timley particularly criticized their omission of Councilman Henry Ficklin, a longtime Appropriations Committee member and former chairman, from that committee; and of new Councilman Henry Gibson, a retired police captain, from the Public Safety Committee. Both had listed those committees as their first choices.
Schlesinger said he and Jones were going by an unwritten tradition that each committee have a member from all of the city’s five wards. Timley scoffed at that.
Eventually Jones and Schlesinger agreed to bend on both those choices, and put Ficklin on the Appropriations Committee and Gibson on the Public Safety Committee. In just a few minutes they agreed on a number of changes that gave every council member his or her first choice -- except for Councilman Rick Hutto, who sought a seat on Appropriations.
To Hutto’s displeasure, they refused to change that, but Timley said he was glad they’d made some compromises. He joined them in unanimously approving the new list.
Committee assignments don’t have to be ratified by full council, so they’ll go into effect immediately. All committees will meet briefly Monday to elect new chairmen, Timley said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.