ATHENS -- The Macon City Council met with Mayor Robert Reichert and key city staff Friday in a room full of “skunks.”
The officials held their annual leadership retreat at the Georgia Center at the University of Georgia, holding the first of two days of discussion overseen by Murray Weed, program manager at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government. Weed, a former lawyer for local Georgia governments and former mayor pro tempore of Peachtree City, spent most of the four-hour session trying to get everyone talking and cooperating.
Roadblocks to communication, old resentments or persistent disagreements, he said, are “skunks in the room.” And a number of them got aired out Friday.
Weed asked elected officials why they ran for office and what accomplishments they want remembered. He collected a general list of positive statements: unifying the community, improving the quality of life, protecting city finances and leaving Macon in better shape.
“Is there any one of those things that all of you can’t get behind?” Weed said. “So I would ask you to tell me: Are you more alike, or are you more different?”
The main difference, it quickly emerged, lies in access to information.
Councilman Rick Hutto sounded a theme that returned throughout the afternoon: The council mistrusts the administration because some council members think the mayor’s office deliberately withholds information or delays it until the last minute.
“Every time I bring that up, we’re told ‘We’re going to do better, we’re going to do better,’ ” Hutto said.
Councilwoman Nancy White, however, declared herself satisfied with the flow of information from the administration and she said some council expectations are unrealistic.
Council President James Timley said the administration sounds out its usual supporters, in search of a majority of eight votes on the 15-member council.
“There’s a caucus, more or less, of what you’d call ‘the mayor’s people,’ ” he said. That causes resentment among other council members, Timley said.
Weed noted that there’s “nothing wrong with counting to eight” -- a majority vote is the democratic process. But that council coalition can change depending on the issue, so the administration can’t afford to permanently alienate several council members, he said.
Reichert announced a slight reorganization Friday: Interim Chief Administrative Officer Dale Walker will become his direct liaison with the council, instead of Internal Affairs Director Keith Moffett. Later, Reichert offered to “share” External Affairs Director Chris Floore with the council to publicize announcements it wants to make.
“We are understanding of the criticism that the communications are less than they should be,” Reichert replied.
Councilman Tom Ellington said he likes the idea of Walker’s regular presence “in theory,” but he wondered if Walker can do that since he’s not only interim CAO but still city finance director.
Reichert said Walker is still doing both jobs because the possibility of consolidating Macon and Bibb County governments has driven off several “preferred candidates” for the permanent CAO job.
Timley said all of those duties are too much for Walker while the city waits to see if a consolidation bill emerges from the state Legislature.
“If you can clone him, that’s fine,” Timley said. “We cannot function for nine months without a full-time CAO. That ain’t going to work.”
Mayoral staff denied there’s any systematic effort to keep information from council members.
“I get no joy out of y’all being mad at me,” Moffett said.
Indeed, one “skunk” he mentioned is the council’s complaint that members aren’t kept apprised of even the most preliminary discussion, though an issue might take a different course entirely before coming up for formal action.
Councilman Virgil Watkins doubted that Walker’s regular presence would be a great help. Sometimes it takes council committees weeks of back-and-forth to get basic questions answered, he said. Department heads should come to council meetings prepared to answer questions, Watkins said.
Councilman Ed DeFore was the first of several to complain that Police Chief Mike Burns won’t directly return calls and often won’t show up at council committee meetings even when police matters are being discussed specifically.
Two or three city department heads actively avoid meetings, offending council members, Councilwoman Lauren Benedict said.
“I feel like they are trying to dodge us sometimes and frankly, dodge the public,” she said.
But another “skunk in the room,” Moffett said, is that animosity flows both ways. Some department heads are immediately on the defensive because they think the council essentially is out to get them, he said.
Reichert agreed, adding that department heads think the council tries to dictate to them without expertise.
“The feedback we get is, ‘Who the hell do they think they are?’ ” the mayor said.
Timley threw that right back, saying some department heads show up at meetings unprepared to answer basic questions. He named no one but alluded to his previous sharp criticism of Economic & Community Development Director Wanzina Jackson.
Weed said department heads need to be treated with the same professional courtesy that council members demand, but Councilman Henry Gibson said he hasn’t seen a department head treated with disrespect in the two months he’s been a council member.
“If anything, it was a department head coming in with an attitude,” Gibson said.
Council members Henry Ficklin, Charles Jones, Elaine Lucas and Lonnie Miley did not attend Friday’s session.