First year as mayor a rocky one for Shaheen

WARNER ROBINS -- A Bible lies in the center of Mayor Chuck Shaheen’s uncluttered desk.

Open recently to Romans 13, a chapter that begins with a call to honor and respect governing authorities, Shaheen said he turns to the Bible for guidance in running the city. City employees often send him scriptures to study.

Shaheen, who in December signed off an e-mail with “Merry CHRISTmas,” said he has read the Bible every day since 1981 -- long before he had a desk in City Hall to call his own.

On Jan. 4, 2010, Shaheen was sworn into office. His first year as mayor did not start, nor did it end, easily.

Shaheen took over a city still grieving the loss of the late Mayor Donald Walker, who held the office for 15 years before committing suicide in the midst of his re-election campaign. His death pitted Shaheen against Chuck Chalk, and, according to some, the election still causes strained relations among the mayor and councilmen today.

Shaheen said he has tried to focus on the positives, and on serving the city of Warner Robins.

Plans for a new law enforcement center are under way, as well as an environmental study for the Georgia-Robins Aerospace Maintenance Partnership. In tough economic times, the city avoided layoffs and furloughs. Communication and cooperation among Warner Robins, Centerville and Perry is good.

“My goal in three years is that it is a better city than it started,” Shaheen said.

@BR Body Subhed:LEC location decided

City Council approved in 2009 a plan to build a new law enforcement center atop Jimmy Perkins Memorial Field.

Shaheen was against that location from the start. Warner Robins residents wanted parks, Shaheen said during his campaign. Eliminating Perkins Field seemed counterproductive, he argued.

Shaheen believed renovating an already vacant building in the city was the way to go.

The new mayor’s opposition to the chosen location did not sit well with some council members. The site was chosen for continuity with the rest of the Homer J. Walker Jr. Municipal Complex, Councilman Bob Wilbanks said in February, adding that the decision already had been made and council should uphold it.

In April, council considered renovating the former Food Max on Russell Parkway. But just as it appeared poised to approve the location, it made a surprising turn and decided to reconsider Perkins Field. Disagreement about the location lingered for months.

Then in September, Shaheen made another announcement. The city planned to spend about $700,000 to purchase 5.7 acres along Watson Boulevard across Ga. 247 from Robins Air Force Base.

The police department was located in that area in the 1950s, bringing the project full circle, Shaheen said. It also will help with redevelopment of the downtown area.

The city had 11 properties under contract in December with one still in negotiations. The total cost to construct the new facility has fluctuated between $5 million and $10 million.

“I knew that I just wanted to hear the people, and the people did not want us to tear up Perkins Field,” Shaheen said.

Wilbanks said Shaheen hindered, not helped, the law enforcement center project. If Shaheen doesn’t like a project, it doesn’t get done, Wilbanks said.

The same goes for a proposed sports complex and a sewer project along U.S. 41, Wilbanks said.

In December 2009, council passed a $1.7 million plan to move forward with construction of a sports complex on 44 acres behind Huntington Middle School on Wellborn Road. The plan was to build four softball fields and a football field, along with a two-story building for snacks, rest rooms and scorekeeping.

Council also previously approved extending sewer service out to U.S. 41.

“A majority approved project, and it’s still sitting there and hasn’t been done,” Wilbanks said. “There it sits because someone over there didn’t support the mayor during the election.”

Shaheen said there’s no factual evidence to support that claim. Since the sports complex project was approved, the plans have added parks and walking trails, what he calls “passive recreation.” The additions were made at the request of Recreation Department Director James Dodson, who is leading the project, he said.

Getting the sewer project done is a matter of following policy, Shaheen said, promising it would be done in 2011.

“I’m trying to run a city for the people and take the politics out of it,” Shaheen said.

@BR Body Subhed:G-RAMP study under way

Along with the law enforcement center, Shaheen identified the Georgia-Robins Aerospace Maintenance Partnership as a top priority when he took office.

Shortly after Shaheen took office he helped put together a committee to secure a firm for the environmental assessment.

In March, City Council approved a bid from Alpharetta-based engineering, environmental and construction firm MACTEC for the project’s environmental assessment. The cost came in at $84,000 -- much lower than expected.

It was a small but important step for G-RAMP. Once the assessment is complete, Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio will determine if the project meets federal regulations related to air, noise and ecological issues.

The project will need a Finding of No Significant Impact to move forward. Shaheen said he should have news about the survey and finding this coming March.

“We have done more this year on G-RAMP than we have in years,” Shaheen said at a recent public speaking event.

If phase one, which calls for two hangars and runway access, is completed in the next three years, the city will have made “tremendous strides,” he said.

The project, which has three proposed phases, aims to be a public-private partnership to help with aircraft maintenance and bring hundreds, possibly thousands, of jobs to the area. The final cost is expected to be in the tens of millions.

Wilbanks agreed G-RAMP was a major accomplishment.

“Obviously G-RAMP is moving along with the help of the (Warner Robins Redevelopment Agency) and G-RAMP committee,” Wilbanks said. “I would say that would be the accomplishment that you could attribute to not just the mayor, but he obviously has focused on that.”

Both G-RAMP and the law enforcement center need to be well under way in 2011, Shaheen said.

@BR Body Subhed:‘We know how to disagree’

Councilman Daron Lee, who is also completing his first year in office, said neither mayor nor council have much to show from their first year together.

“Physically, we have nothing to show. We have nothing to show saying this is what we have accomplished this year,” Lee said. “The thing we have accomplished is we know how to disagree with each other. We’ve done a lot of talking, but physically we have not put anything in action.”

Lee said the discord among councilmen and the mayor, which earned them a letter of reprimand from Gov. Sonny Perdue in September, stems from the election.

“I do believe it was more personal, who supported whose ticket. If you supported this person, then you didn’t support that person,” Lee said. “It shouldn’t be that way. What’s done is done. People (are) clinging on to ‘I’m going to do this to you because you didn’t support me.’ ”

Shaheen, who has a background in pharmaceutical sales, admitted the politics of the job were not what he expected, and he’s trying to stay out of it.

“I thought the political part was going to be more common sense, more like running a business,” Shaheen said.

At the last City Council meeting of 2010, Shaheen was still trying to make that argument. Council passed an ordinance Wilbanks introduced allowing department heads the same appeal rights for dismissals as other city employees.

“You’ve got to run the city like a business,” Shaheen said during the meeting. “This is not a good business practice.”

Councilman Tom Simms Jr. -- who, along with Councilman John Williams, did not support the measure -- believed politics were at play.

“It’s a shallow attempt to take authority away from the Mayor’s Office,” Simms said during the meeting. He did not return a phone call to be interviewed for this article.

Wilbanks has said the ordinance about department head dismissals stems from a conflict between police Chief Brett Evans and Shaheen.

In August, Shaheen suspended Evans for seven days for violating city policy regarding campaigning. Evans, who lives outside city limits, had a sign in his yard for Shaheen’s opponent, Chuck Chalk. After two days, council ended Evans’s suspension during a called meeting.

Evans did not respond to a request for comment through the police department’s public information officer.

“You have to let the election go. You have to forget all the politics,” Wilbanks said of Shaheen’s challenges. “You have to move forward. ... You need to stop playing politics and get things done.”

In many cases, Wilbanks votes in line with new council members Mike Daley, Paul Shealy and Lee, often against the mayor. In June, the four voted to oust Shaheen as chairman of the Warner Robins Redevelopment Agency and give the role to Daley. Simms voted against the measure and Williams abstained from the vote.

Wilbanks said there is no credibility to the argument that they gang up on Shaheen.

“You have to carry out the majority vote,” he said. “The mayor doesn’t do that.”

In August, the four also voted for an investigation -- formerly called an investigative audit -- into city functions with a focus on the first portion of 2010.

Former City Clerk Stan Martin, who submitted a contract to perform the investigation, already has done some work on the topic. However, it is unclear whether Martin is authorized to conduct the audit if the mayor doesn’t sign the contract.

Martin was fired in December 2009 for an October 2009 incident in which he and another employee peeked above the ceiling tiles of the late mayor Walker’s office. He has said Shaheen and the new council should have hired him back in January after a GBI investigation found no wrongdoing.

Williams wrote in a statement that Shaheen has done an admirable job in the face of the challenges with council. Stepping into government and away from private enterprise can be hard for anybody, and it can take years to build alliances to ensure a smooth operating organization, he wrote.

“Even as mayor, to be effective you must have the cooperation of the governing body. Unfortunately, Mayor Shaheen has little help from his council,” Williams wrote. “This has hampered progress in some areas; however, these obstacles are being met and overcome at this time.

“With three inexperienced council members and a new mayor, one could only expect the first year to be a little bumpy with a few detours to go around.”

When asked to rate Shaheen’s performance, Shealy replied in an e-mail that he would give an 80 percent “with the idea that his job rating is a work in progress.”

“It would be hard to give an exact grade as it (is) an ongoing procedure on so many programs and ideas that not only he, but his council, are facing and working on at this time,” Shealy wrote. “His and all our efforts are there, it’s just getting everyone on the same page to help the city move forward.”

Daley did not comment for this story.

Shaheen didn’t want to discuss mayor and council relations with The Telegraph.

“Councilmen want to have their voices heard,” Shaheen said. “All the councilmen want to serve the people of Warner Robins.”

He later added: “You’re only as good as the surrounding support and dedication you get from the council to serve the city of Warner Robins.”

@BR Body Subhed:Cooperation with cities

While cooperation with council may be strained, that’s not so between Shaheen and the mayors of Centerville and Perry.

Both Centerville Mayor John Harley and Perry Mayor Jimmy Faircloth -- who also just completed their first year as mayors -- said they have worked with Shaheen on getting a number of things accomplished for their cities.

Harley said he and Centerville Councilman Edward Tucker talked to Shaheen about getting Willie Lee Parkway, which belongs to Warner Robins, extended to Gunn Road in Centerville. Shaheen forwarded the request to council, and it passed. A contract was put out for the street in November, Harley said.

“I see this as a complete change. In the past, the cities cooperated occasionally, but they didn’t work collectively on things,” Harley said.

Shaheen said he has made an effort to bridge the gap with Centerville and Perry. He said he tries to attend their meetings and events, and they come to his.

When Maj. Gen. Polly Peyer, former commander of the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, retired, the three mayors gave her a symbolic “tri-city” key to the cities, Shaheen said.

Faircloth said Shaheen has done his best in spite of the situation.

“I think that he’s doing an admirable job from the standpoint that he is following a mayor that was so entrenched. Quite frankly, no matter who had taken that position, they would have had a difficult time dealing with everything that has gone on,” Faircloth said. “There has been some challenges that I think Chuck has had to face, some not of his own doing.

“In some things, he’s gotten some support from council and some things he has not, and the things that he has not gotten the support of council have been very dramatic. That’s got to be difficult for anyone to deal with.”

@BR Body Subhed:Fresh start

The mayor and councilmen say they desire a fresh start in 2011 and that they already have seen improvement.

“The meetings there, it used to be if the mayor didn’t agree he wouldn’t hear you. That has changed,” Wilbanks said. “I think the mayor has learned you do have to have an orderly meeting.”

Lee said mayor and council have to go back to the drawing board.

“If we operate in 2011 the way we did in 2010, it will be a sad next two, three years for the city of Warner Robins,” Lee said. “There has to be some changes.”

Training would help mayor and council carry out meetings in a more professional manner, Lee said.

“I do believe we have some councilmen on board who pretty much want to put this behind us and move into a positive direction,” he said. “It’s hard to operate in politics if you continue to hold grudges.

“All of us did some things or had things done to them this past year. We gotta let that stuff go.”

Shaheen promised improvement at a recent Eggs and Issues breakfast hosted by the Robins Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“This first year has been like a marriage,” Shaheen said. “You know, the first year I got married, it was kind of tough. The second year it got better. The third year it got better. So we’re going to do better, and we’re going to serve you great.”

At the last council meeting of 2010, Williams strayed from the agenda and made a motion to stop the investigation into city functions.

“I think it would be a good start to the new year to start fresh,” Williams said.

Shaheen looked at City Attorney Jim Elliott and asked in a whisper whether he could second the motion. Elliott shook his head no.

The motion failed for lack of a second.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.