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Johns Creek: New year, new slate, new opportunities



January 15, 2014
And then there was one.

In the stormiest year of Johns Creek's short life, politics flared incredibly for six months.

Five members of the City Council united to unseat the city's only mayor. With the resignation of Ivan Figueroa (who is relocating to South Georgia), only Brad Raffensperger remains on board, and is likely to be a marginalized voice – which he rarely exercises on council; and then, it is usually to quote someone else (Ronald Reagan is a favorite).

The reality is, that edition of the City Council had checked out some time ago. Most of the big decisions were left to the city manager and the staff. In theory, the council professed that it was their duty to set policy and the staff's duty to carry out that policy.

But in the last two years or so, there was precious little "policy setting." By that time, most of the decision-making had been handed over to others. Most issues at work sessions were preemptory with little discussion. Now, some of this no doubt rested on the competence of staff and the clarity of purpose.

But over time, it certainly seemed that the absence of discussion was the rule. A question or two might be asked, but seldom was there any follow-up.

Nor were issues discussed or explained during the regular meetings that followed work sessions.

Instead, they quickly passed with most in attendance left in the dark because what discussion there had been was heard in the work session that had just adjourned.

While this practice usually produced a sigh of relief in this reporter, I began to realize this lack of presentations by staff to the public was a disservice to the citizens. It meant that not only did the public get little information about the city's business unless they attended work sessions – which are held in a room with limited seating behind council chambers – items discussed were voted up or down the same day.

In my experience, items discussed in work sessions seldom were presented for a vote the same day. But then work sessions are seldom held back-to-back with regular sessions. It may appear to be efficient, but it does not promote transparency.

This does not allow the citizens to gauge the way councilmembers think about the items that come before them.

It seemed to me at least part of this reticence was a reluctance to appear going against the grain. The previous council seemed to put a premium on consensus rather than expressing opinions. This became oppressively clear during last summer.

Apparently, they felt the need to muzzle any public comment from volunteer city board members on the mayor's investigation. And when the chairman of the Planning Commission brought up a change of the city charter to rectify a clear slap at free speech, council made no bones about refusing to consider it precisely because they knew they would not like what he had to say, i.e. that mayor's probe was unwarranted and possibly illegal.

The citizens of the city made their feelings clear, and the election results are there for all to see.

Whether it was a vote of confidence for the mayor or revulsion of the tactics to remove him, it is impossible to say for sure, but surely a mixture of the two.

Now we have a City Council with two new members of council seated and two more to come in a special election sometime this spring.

It will be a new broom indeed. However, those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it, the philosopher says. The old council had a heavy load when they took office. First, there was no precedent for them, no institutional memory to guide them.

But they were the leaders of the move to cityhood, and so they stood up for the jobs that most of the populace was more than willing to accede to them. They did not start out to be the body that ultimately was turned out in favor of political neophytes.

The city was happy to leave things in their hands. The transition into the board they became was a slow process and insidious. They did not get good advice from the professionals around them.

And instead, they allowed their responsibilities to be slowly appropriated.

Now these two, soon to be four, newcomers must learn the lessons so bitterly learned over these last seven months. Don't be afraid to challenge what you are told. Don't place a premium on consensus. It's possible to dissent and still be a team player.

Holding office means having a willingness to make up your own mind and to state your reasons. It sounds easy in theory, but in practice, it is far from it.

But that is the job.

Executive Editor, Appen Media.
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