WARNER ROBINS -- Warner Robins Mayor Chuck Shaheen and City Council members openly admitted in December 2010 that their first year together was chaotic. They pledged 2011 would be a fresh start.
But at their first council meeting this year, they argued. Four voted to dismiss longtime City Attorney Jim Elliott, as he sat nearby. Three days later, and after public outcry, councilmen reinstated Elliott.
Despite that rough start, Shaheen has reached the halfway mark of his term with a year that saw progress on major projects and in council relations.
With three new council members taking office in the new year, he and the current councilmen are hoping for even more progress in 2012. Terms for Councilmen Tom Simms Jr., Bob Wilbanks and John Williams end Dec. 31.
“I believe this new council -- we’re going to have a vision of how to move Warner Robins forward to the year 2040,” Shaheen said.
RDA reformation aids LEC project
Shaheen’s year started with a slight change in the way councilmen voted.
In much of 2010, Shaheen’s ideas tended to receive a 4-2 vote, with Councilmen Mike Daley, Daron Lee, Paul Shealy and Wilbanks voting together.
This year, Lee -- who served as mayor pro-tem -- began to cast his vote more often in agreement with Simms and Williams, leaving Shaheen as the deciding vote. Lee recently said he decided to work more cohesively with the mayor.
“Whatever my decision was, whether I was pro or against what the mayor said, that would be behind closed doors,” Lee said. “But in the public’s eye, even if I didn’t agree, we acted professionally.”
One of the first decisions that showed the tide change was an April vote to reform the Redevelopment Agency board, which oversees most of the city’s major projects. Shaheen argued replacing mayor and council on the board with residents would “take politics out of business decisions.”
Shaheen cast the deciding vote for the reformation when Daley, then the chairman of the board, Shealy and Wilbanks voted against the measure.
The reformation of the board made way for progress on the Law Enforcement Center, Shaheen said. One of his goals was to move forward on projects that had stalled for years before his term began, including the police headquarters.
The project had been discussed for years. In 2010, City Council settled on the Watson Boulevard and First Street location after considering two others. This year the building was redesigned, the property acquisitions were finalized and most of the needed land has been cleared.
“With this new RDA board under Gary Lee (the RDA executive director), we have taken politics out and put progress in,” Shaheen said, adding “there’s no way” the project would be as far along if mayor and council were still on the board.
Shealy and Wilbanks recently said the new board has made tremendous strides, but they stand by their original votes. Daley did not mention the RDA in an e-mailed statement for this story.
“The people elected mayor and council, and I think there’s a responsibility there,” Shealy said. “I think we could’ve represented the people a little better.”
Also this year, the Georgia-Robins Aerospace Maintenance Partnership project received its needed finding of No Significant Impact from Air Force Materiel Command.
“G-RAMP had been talked about for 10 years before me,” Shaheen said. “And we got that done in a year. That’s progress.”
The project is proposed to be a public-private partnership to include maintenance hangars for use by Robins Air Force Base, which local leaders say could bring thousands of jobs to the area.
But where the project goes from here is uncertain. Shaheen announced at a recent state-of-the-city address that he doesn’t think the city ought to be in charge of building the project, mainly because of the multi-million dollar price tag and the needed manpower. He proposed City Council review options to either give the land to Robins Air Force Base or sell it to a developer.
Daley and Shealy have said they agree other options should be considered in the new year now that the environmental assessment has shown the land is viable for the project. Williams also agreed but said it could be a hard sell.
“I just don’t know if a private contractor is going to want to do it,” Williams said.
Wilbanks said Shaheen’s proposals for G-RAMP are yet another example of the mayor going against City Council decisions. The project is a win-win for the city, Wilbanks said.
“Now, all of a sudden, he wants to sell that land to a developer,” the councilman said. “The situation that we had out there -- we had the land, we build it up, we prepare it and the contractors come in and we benefit (from) the revenues and we benefit (from) the job creations. Why would we give that up?”
Another project that progressed this year was a wastewater treatment plant extension. City Council voted this month to seek $28.5 million in bonds to fund the project, which will increase the capacity from 9 million gallons of wastewater per day to 12 million.
The expansion will not only lay the groundwork for future residential growth but also will attract industry, Shaheen said.
After laying new and replacing old sewer lines throughout the city this year, Shealy said, the plant expansion is the next big infrastructure necessity.
“That’s for the future,” he said.
In addition, Shaheen said he pushed to complete road projects earmarked for 2001 and 2006 special purpose local options sales tax funds, including those for Margie Drive, Willie Lee Parkway and North Davis Drive.
Shaheen said some hard lessons were learned this year, specifically in communication. Both the mayor and councilmen said better communication was at the foundation of the calmer council relations.
For his part, Shaheen said he took advice from some Warner Robins’ “forefathers,” including former council members and interim mayors Henrietta McIntyre and Clifford Holmes.
“When you get new people in, it takes a little while for them to gel,” said Shealy -- who, along with Daley and Lee, joined council at the same time as Shaheen. “We’re really just regular town folks; you don’t have the seasoned politicians.”
A lack of communication was the reason council blindsided Elliott at its first meeting, Lee said. Elliott was given no prior notice his job was on the line. Though specifics weren’t given regarding the brief termination, councilmen have said the issues they had have been discussed and resolved.
“Once you know better, you do better,” Lee said, adding he later apologized to Elliott. “There are some things that we probably should have given a second thought.”
Shaheen, city engineers and public works employees also were schooled this year on being environmentally friendly when -- after a months-long investigation -- the Georgia Environmental Protection Division found permitting violations for work done at Bay Gall Creek.
The city was fined $50,000 and placed on a year probation. Shaheen said the investigation revealed some requirements he and city employees were unaware of.
“They were really understanding of where we were going,” Shaheen said of the EPD.
The councilmen agreed Shaheen, a former pharmaceutical salesman who had little political experience before running for mayor in 2009, has learned more about being the city’s leader.
“I think he’s learned a lot. I think he’s matured some,” Wilbanks said. “I still think he’s going to have a challenge working within the city charter.”
Wilbanks said, as he has several times before, that Shaheen has a habit of ignoring majority votes he does not agree with. Wilbanks pointed to a sports complex that has not been built.
Shaheen has said he would like to see the complex, which previous councils have said would bring softball tournaments to Warner Robins, redesigned and moved from the approved location just northwest of the intersection of Russell Parkway and Ga. 247.
Wilbanks said Shaheen should follow through with the plans City Council approved at least 10 years ago.
Daley also mentioned Shaheen’s ability to follow through with majority votes in an e-mailed statement.
“The mayor has a big job and a huge responsibility,” Daley wrote. “He is the chief executive officer and is responsible for the efficient administration of all the affairs of the city over which he has jurisdiction. However the M&C (mayor and council) is the governing body of the city of which the mayor is one of the members with the same powers as any one of the other six members and the M&C by majority vote set the direction of the city.”
The councilmen interviewed for this story all agreed Shaheen’s second year was better than the first. However, they said the third will be the best yet because the mayor has learned the ropes and three new councilmen are entering the picture. Simms did not respond to interview requests.
Carolyn Robbins, Mike Brashear and Mike Davis will be sworn in Dec. 29. They are replacing Simms, Wilbanks and Williams, respectively. Much unity is expected of these three, especially since they are replacing two councilmen who generated headlines for quirky and combative behavior. Williams is facing one federal and one Houston County Superior Court indictment, and it’s a rare occasion Wilbanks shies away from an argument.
“It’ll be that much better because you have a little camaraderie” with the new council members, Shealy said.
The three recently were challenged with quashing an argument between Shaheen and Wilbanks over the implementation of a payroll study. Instead of the tension that was present at the final precouncil meeting, the year’s last regular meeting ended with a 7-0 vote in which a compromise had been made.
Council approved a measure that said a payroll adjustment would be made -- as Wilbanks wanted -- but did not lock the city into a specific plan -- as the mayor wanted.
“I saw the incoming council and the ones already in council (who are returning) working hand-in-hand, and it really made me feel good” about being voted out, Williams said. “We had oil and water on there for two years, and it didn’t mix.”
The continuing councilmen agreed next year should be a new start.
“We learn from the past, which hopefully makes us wiser for the future,” Daley wrote in his statement. “I have enjoyed working with the mayor and present members of the council this past year and look forward to working with the newly elected members and the present midterm members next year.”
To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.