People stood and tensions flared during Tuesday’s packed Demorest City Council meeting. (Hadley Cottingham/Now Habersham)
Months of simmering tensions boiled over during the Demorest City Council meeting on Feb. 4. A standing-room-only crowd filled the municipal building.
From the outset, Mayor Rick Austin attempted to keep things under control.
“It is imperative that we operate with professionalism in the court,” Austin said. “So, I ask that when people speak, they do so by not speaking over others and that we’re polite and cordial. At the end of the day, we’re all North Georgia residents; most of us are residents of the City of Demorest.”
Showdown with Showalter
The call for public decorum didn’t last long. During public comments, resident Deborah Showalter questioned the mayor about discrepancies she says she found in the city budget.
According to her own research, Showalter says in 2019 meetings were called with no explanation and several double, and even triple, meetings were called over a 24-hour period.
“It’s clear that it’s become—by the record-keeping—a very regular habit that pay requests come via calls [and] emails,” Showalter said. “Documentation is promised to be provided later; unfortunately, there’s multiple situations where spreadsheets were not provided when the check is picked up. The majority of the 2019 records provided by Austin do not match the requests for pay.”
Showalter has been a vocal critic of Mayor Austin and previously asked him to resign.
The tensions between the two were clear Tuesday as she requested a change in the way meetings and payments are documented. She also asked the council to cap the number of meetings they hold at two per month.
Austin laughed, saying, “Thank you, ma’am.” Before asking for the next public comment.
The next comment came from Councilmember Dr. John Hendrix. “I’d also like to speak. There were a couple of comments in the paper about what I said last meeting was irresponsible and misleading.” Hendrix said. “My purpose was to present facts, and the facts that were presented as such.”
Hendrix was referring to the January council meeting in which a local newspaper reported that he referred to the city’s water and sewer bond as a step above the “speculative” or “junk” category.
“To me, this is not irresponsible, this is transparency. This is the way, in my view, we should operate,” Hendrix said. He went on to say, “As far as misleading goes, I’m sorry that people felt what I said was not appropriate, but again, it’s not my opinion, these were the facts.”
And the list of grievances didn’t end there.
Wikle takes on the ‘Wizard’ letter
Former councilwoman Florence Wikle took to the podium during public comments to address a letter to the editor written by Piedmont College President Dr. James Mellichamp.
Looking at him, Wikle said she was “disappointed,” in the letter he wrote entitled “Exposing the ‘Wizard of Demorest.’” In his letter, Mellichamp, who was accused of harassment by Austin in a recent lawsuit against the college, compared the politics of the City of Demorest to the “Wizard of Oz.”
“Piedmont College doesn’t pay a dime of taxes to the City of Demorest, do you?” Wikle said.
“When I came on the council, we had a tax revenue of over 400,000 dollars. Now we’re at 220,000 [dollars] because you don’t pay property tax. […] I don’t see how you can stand up here, you don’t live in Demorest, and criticize the way our city is run.
Wikle recently stepped down from the council after serving for eight years. She said during that time “I thought we were in pretty good shape. I finally found out that we have been swindled out of over half a million dollars [by Piedmont College].”
Mellichamp did not publicly respond to Wikle’s assertion.
Another heated exchange
Towards the end of the council meeting, Austin seemingly threw out his earlier request to “not speak over” one another and to “be cordial” in an altercation with Showalter. She asked City Treasurer Joely Mixon about what keeps departments from going over budget and what has to be authorized for them to go over budget. Mixon responded that in order for a department to go over budget, the council has to approve it.
Showalter then asked, “So, if, for instance—and I hate to keep going back to this—but from all the records I looked at last year, in the past year we were significantly over budget in what was paid to the councilmembers and the mayor. Who gave approval for that to go over budget?”
Mixon said she didn’t recall how the decision was made.
“So, there was no approval given for the mayor to go over the budget to the tune of 17,400 dollars in 2018, and 15,000 [dollars] and some-odd amount in ’19,” Showalter began, before Austin cut her off.
“Why don’t you ask what the previous mayor made?” Austin said referring to former longtime Mayor Malcolm Hunnicutt. An investigation five years ago revealed more than a half-million dollars went “missing” from city coffers during the time Hunnicutt served as mayor.
As Austin and Showalter began talking over one another, she said, “The past is the past.” Austin abruptly ended the heated discussion saying, “You are not recognized, I’m done.”
The embattled mayor then deferred the question to Joey Homans, city attorney. “When the budget resolution is passed they can go above that budget, but it has to come back to [the] mayor and council,” Homans said. Mixon clarified that an overhaul budget had occurred.