The mayor of Cochran said in a resignation letter presented to the City Council on Tuesday the reason he was resigning was because four council members held what he called an illegal meeting prior to a July called meeting.
“In my opinion the integrity of the Council with regards to conducting open meetings has been jeopardized by the actions of several council members who have decided to operate outside of the parameters of the Charter, our Ethics Ordinance and State Law to promote their own personal agenda,” Michael Stoy wrote in the letter dated Oct. 11.
Stoy said Thursday he read the letter aloud at the meeting so it would be a part of the official minutes of the meeting. He then presented copies of the letter to the city manager to distribute to council members.
In 2012, Stoy was elected to fill an unexpired term of the previous mayor, and he was re-elected unopposed the following year. His current term will expire in December 2017.
He wrote in the letter that a video of the City Hall security cameras showed the “alleged illegal meeting that conducted city business on July 26, 2016 from 6:40 to 7 p.m. in the lobby of City Hall. This meeting was attended by Councilman Gary Ates, Fleming Gilman, Andrew Lemmon, and Jon Thrower. Witnesses to this gathering included Councilman Charles Cranford and the City Clerk Ms. Lisa Chastain.”
He also presented a copy of the video on a CD at Tuesday’s meeting. He said at the July 24 meeting, three council members walked in the back door, past the entrance to council chambers went “up to the front and sit down, fire up the computer.” He says the a fourth member then comes in, goes pass the chambers and joins the other three in the front of City Hall, and they talked for about 20 minutes.
Chastain said that during the July 25 meeting she saw the four council members near the front of city hall. She had to get something out of her office, also near the front, “and I don’t think they knew I had gone there and they continued talking. I did hear the words ‘make a motion,’ but that’s all I heard.”
The minutes of the July 25 meeting show that after a closed door session, the council voted 5-1 to suspend Chastain “without pay for three days and that the City Manager conduct a performance review and develop an action plan for job performance.”
Chastain said Thursday that “it appears it was not performance based.” A council member asked her to do something “in what I thought was a kidding way ... and when I didn’t do it they didn’t like it.”
Councilman Jon Thrower said the council members didn’t immediately go in council chambers at the July 25 meeting because there wasn’t room.
“I got there a few minutes early ... the room wasn’t ready,” he said. “There were people in there working and we simply stood in the hallway” until the fourth council member arrived and they moved to the front lobby.
When asked what they were talking about, Thrower first said “I have no idea what we were talking about.” Then when asked if they were discussing city business, he said, “Not that I recall. I really can’t tell you what was said. That was in July.”
Stoy said he waited three months after the alleged illegal meeting before submitting his resignation for several reasons.
“It took time to work through a lot of stuff and personally where I needed to go with regard to the information,” he said. Also, he was out of town for two weeks shortly after the July meeting and he missed the August meeting. “I had to figure out what I was going to do. ... I had to do some internal planning so there was a transition so the city wouldn’t have to stop performing its business.”
While the video has no audio, Stoy said he’s confident that city business was being discussed by the four council members.
“You have to put it in context, and part of the problem will probably be I know what happened before, after and during (the alleged illegal meeting),” he said. “And that’s all locked up in executive session.”
After he submitted the letter at Tuesday’s meeting, council members voted to go into closed session to discuss personnel issues, Stoy said.
Chastain said Thursday that she went into the executive session to take minutes, but she was immediately asked to step outside. She sat on the backdoor steps, she said.
“And the city manager stepped outside after about an hour and told me that council had voted to terminate me,” she said. “I did ask the city manager ‘did they give a reason,’ and he just said ‘well you know that Georgia is an at-will state. I’ve been in H.R. for years and I said, ‘I understand.’ ”
She said it wasn’t clear to her if the council came out of the closed session to actually take a vote on the termination as is required by state law.
“If they came out of executive session, I don’t know,” she said. “I wasn’t called in to witness the vote.”
Thrower said the council voted to come out of the closed session before taking the vote to terminate Chastain. But while he said he opened the door to the meeting, he said he didn’t see her.
The city will have to hold a special election to elect another mayor because Stoy’s unexpired term is more than one year, said Chastain, who was also the city’s elections superintendent. The election to replace Stoy would be held March 21 and then another election for mayor would be held next November, she said.
Early voting begins Monday for a city referendum on by-the-drink alcohol sales in the city, she said. She said she believes the Georgia Secretary of State’s office would have to make an emergency appointment for election superintendent.