The political infighting ratcheted up a notch this week in Demorest as two different citizens groups launched separate recall efforts against two city council members and the mayor.
One group, led by Joan Tench, is seeking to remove council members Nathan Davis and John Hendrix. The other, a nonprofit which goes by the name Concerned Citizens of Demorest (CCD), led by Deborah Showalter, is seeking to remove Mayor Rick Austin. CCD secretary Terry Benischick formally requested the application.
Many knew the recall for Davis and Hendrix was coming. Citizens outraged by the firing of police chief Robin Krockum made their intentions known back in May. Davis, a hairstylist, and Hendrix, an optometrist, both took office in January. July 1 was the earliest opponents could launch a recall against them since state law does not allow anyone to be recalled in their first 180 days in office.
While the recall against Austin was not expected, it comes as no real surprise. It’s not the CCD’s first attempt at removing him from office. The organization, which Showalter claims represents 184 mostly elderly citizens, dropped an earlier recall attempt.
Each group has until Monday, August 10, to collect enough signatures to move the process forward. They must collect at least ten percent of the number of active registered voters who were eligible to vote in the officials’ respective elections.
There were 942 active eligible voters in Demorest in November 2017 when Rick Austin was re-elected and 1006 in November 2019 when Davis and Hendrix were elected, according to Ellison. Based on those figures, the CCD must collect at least 94 signatures on its application to recall Austin. Tench and her group must collect at least 100 signatures on each of their applications.
Along with the signatures, each group must provide a statement of facts outlining the specific statutory grounds for the recall. Under Georgia law, an elected official may be recalled for an act of malfeasance or misconduct, violating their oath of office, failing to perform their legally required duties, and misusing, converting or misappropriating public property or funds.
Showalter, an outspoken critic of Mayor Austin, told Now Habersham in June that “my personal view is that the mayor has done some things that are illegal.” She said at the time that her organization was “investigating” Austin but refused to give details. She has publicly questioned his reimbursement claims for meetings in recent years, saying some of the paperwork was incomplete and the number of meetings excessive. The mayor gets paid $200 per meeting. Also, the CCD has repeatedly claimed a conflict of interest exists between Austin and city attorney Joey Homans since Homans has represented Austin in two previous legal matters unrelated to his duties as mayor.
Those seeking to oust Davis and Hendrix point to their own list of grievances. Both councilmen have publicly admitted participating in meetings with City Manager Kim Simonds that were apparent violations of the state’s Sunshine Law. Hendrix approved of Simonds’ decision to fire Chief Krockum and Davis assisted with the swearing-in of his illegally hired successor. The three also worked together to consult and secure outside counsel to remove Homans and Austin from office. As a result , Simonds entered into two illegally executed contracts with attorneys on the city’s behalf.
Krockum’s firing, and ultimate rehiring, cost Demorest taxpayers at least $28,300 in settlement and legal fees. The unauthorized legal contracts Simonds signed put the city on the hook for another $15,500.
“I just think that what they did was so terribly wrong and I don’t think it will stop there,” says former city council member Florence Wikle of Davis and Hendrix. She’s part of the group attempting to recall them. Group members will begin canvassing neighborhoods on Wednesday, July 28, asking voters to sign their recall applications.