JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Under the home rule powers of local municipalities, the Johns Creek City Council had stripped the mayor of the power to fire the city manager and the city attorney.
With a new City Council empaneled, Mayor Mike Bodker is looking to get those powers back. Councilwoman Kelly Stewart also is championing a return to a stronger mayor, saying it makes sense to have the council’s structure mirror that of board of directors.
“It would be consistent with the way things were done before, and make all of those appointments the same,” she said.
When the original city charter was created, the mayor would appoint a city manager, city attorney and city clerk and have those appointments ratified by a majority of the City Council. In 2011, with a rift deepening between Bodker and council, the councilmembers used the home rule powers to amend the charter that spring.
The charter was already scheduled to be re-examined that summer by a charter commission made up of citizens. That was established in the original city charter to have a review of how the charter was holding up.
David Kornbluh, a board member of the Johns Creek Community Association, was a member of that charter commission, and recalls that the commission was “guided away” from examining those changes made by council.
“I think it would be a good idea to revisit those changes now,” Kornbluh said. “That would make the charter consistent again. And it would make sense to me after what happened.”
By “what happened,” Kornbluh meant the division between Bodker and council over what the powers of the mayor ought to be. That City Council rewrote the charter to say that the mayor’s job was to “represent the will of council.”
They sought to rein in what they saw as Bodker’s excessive use of authority as mayor. The city manager and city attorney were brought into those squabbles, thus politicizing those offices.
Stewart’s resolution would bring things back to pre-2011, where the manager, attorney and city clerk served “at the pleasure” of the mayor.
“The nominations still must be approved by the full council,” Stewart said. “But as it is now, the manager serves for an indefinite term. That is what led to the recent occurrences.”
She referred to the situation where the manager was under fire for misconduct, but he asserted it was retaliation for his efforts as a “whistleblower.” In the end, the city manager agreed to a severance deal to avoid any litigation.
Councilman Ivan Figueroa disagreed. He said rather than protect the manager, serving at the pleasure of the mayor gave the mayor a hold over the city manager.
“With the mayor having termination powers, that would possibly color the manager’s thoughts if what he said might upset the mayor and get him fired,” Figueroa said. “So am I getting the best information, or the information that saves his job?”
Councilman Brad Raffensperger also opposed changing the process.
“I know the city manager didn’t always listen to us. But I want a city manager who will tell us when we’re wrong,” he said.
Under home rule, the council may amend the charter. However, the action must be advertised for 60 days, and public meetings held to get the sense of the community.
Raffensperger and Figueroa suggested that the council wait until the vacant seats are filled in the special election in May, so that a full council could decide. But that would not be until May, and even then there may be runoffs that would extend the matter into the summer.
Stewart said that would also impede the search for a new city manager.
“Are we going to get the caliber of city manager we want, when we can’t even tell him under what conditions he will serve?” she asked.