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Council retreats necessary for good government



March 05, 2013
Everyone knows local government moves slowly. There are many cogs to the wheels and lawyers who jam them up at every turn.

Once a year, governments get to pow-wow in intensive sessions to break through the morass to discuss the state of themselves and what they plan for the coming year. These meetings are called "retreats."

They give the city councils and staffers a chance to meet together for a full day or two with no distractions from life or work to hash out a program and bat ideas around. It's not like a vacation. Just nothing but government work.

While Milton and Johns Creek had their retreats midyear last year, Alpharetta and Roswell held theirs only a few weeks ago.

Recent press has painted these in a negative light and I'm still scratching my head as to why.

Alpharetta's mayor and council headed to Athens Jan. 20 for their retreat, spending a total of $2,950. Of that, $2,130 was for meeting space and overnight accommodations. The balance was spent on three meals and audio equipment use. They stayed at the Hotel Indigo.

"Athens was selected because we wanted to tour the Athens Classic Center," said Alpharetta Deputy City Administrator James Drinkard. "They spent some time learning about its development and operations from their director. There was also one lunch that was held outside of the hotel at a local restaurant."

Alpharetta is looking into creating its own convention center, and wants input on how such a thing might work. Last year, the council went to Madison to look at its downtown. At the time, Alpharetta was seeking to complete its own city center project. Madison is a picture-book downtown and does many things well.

The members of the council, the mayor city administrator and some department heads attended.

Roswell headed to the Reynolds Plantation Ritz Carlton in Greensboro Jan. 31 for a cost of $4,879. More than $3,000 of that was for rooms for the mayor, council, city administrator and a facilitator, who did not charge for his services. The rest covered catering, valet parking and meals.

Roswell has not held an out-of-town retreat for several years.

"Lake Oconee Reynolds Plantation was selected based on availability of lodging rooms on the selected dates, meeting room facilities and it was within traveling distance by car," explained City Administrator Kay Love. "Our retreats and leadership meetings have traditionally been held off site and out of the city of Roswell so that is the concept by which this trip was planned."

Johns Creek met for their yearly strategic planning session June 1 – 2 at the Stone Mountain Conference Center. For the roughly 30 department heads, mayor and council and managers, the cost was roughly $5,000. Three people spent the night – the city manager, deputy city manager and a facilitator.

The facilitator is paid $10,000 annually and is used by the city throughout the year, said City Spokeswoman Rosemary Taylor.

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May 3-5, Milton went to the Atlanta National Golf Club, which is located within the city of Milton. The three-day retreat had most department heads, the city administrator and the mayor and council in attendance. A facilitator, Marie Garrett, attended.

The city spent $300 on the facilities and food, said Communications Manager Jason Wright. No one spent the night. Garrett's fee was $6,500.

"If you want to have a professional, well-known facilitator, you're going to have to pay for it," Wright said. "We got a ton of work done."

And that's the important thing – getting work done. When it comes right down to it, all the cities on the north side conducted themselves responsibly. Even Roswell, who some residents are complaining about for going out of town to the Ritz, spent less than some cities and this was the first time in several years they have ventured beyond the city limits.

Retreats provide our city governments a chance to escape from distractions and concentrate on a range of issues and ideas. For many council members, they only see each other once a week – for the council meeting. The retreat offers them a way to spend time with each other and build consensus on important issues that may come before them. That's what retreats are for and that's what the cities of north Fulton did.

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