Button Issues – An Editorialized Summary of the January 13, 2020, Johns Creek City Council Meeting
“I’ve got button issues!” — Councilmember John Bradberry.
That line was uttered by Bradberry, but it could have been any of them as it truly summed up the evening. If you haven’t heard, the City Council has a new-fangled voting system that lets them vote via the push of a button and they were a little like kids with a new toy. This served to lighten the mood and add some frivolity to the evening. So while some Councilmembers were buzzing in Jeopardy-style, competing to be the first to push the button to get a second, others were trying to figure out if they should say the motion before they push the button or as they are pushing the button and Joanie Jones, the City Clerk, thought she accidentally deleted a resident who had approached the podium for public comment. Councilmember Bradberry clarified that the gentleman wasn’t actually deleted in real life, much to the relief of Mr. Vahkela who wasn’t quite sure what to do. He just wanted to talk about the merits of cricket!
After a bit of a slow start, Ms. Jones got the voting system working and we were able to see the votes displayed on the viewing screens throughout the room. After the first vote, Ms. Jones let out a delighted giggle, “that’s exciting isn’t it y’all?” It was adorable and yes it was kinda cool and also quite useful. It is the only reason that I spelled Mr. Vahkela’s name correctly in the preceding paragraph. But they never did quite get it figured out as it was the last motion of the evening, the motion to adjourn to executive session, that inspired the title of this story. I am confident that Council can master the button-pushing before the next meeting. Hopefully, there will be something else to amuse us.
The overall mood was jovial. Perhaps it was the childlike thrill of playing with a new toy or maybe it was the celebratory nature of the swearing-in ceremonies or it could have been the clean slate of a new year. Whatever the reason, there was much less tension in the room than what we are used to. There were none of the threats, accusations, and red-faced gavel banging that we have seen in recent sessions. Ms. Jones’ delight seemed to spread to others in the room.
The first order of business was the swearing-in ceremony for the newly elected Councilmembers: Brian Weaver, Chris Coughlin, and Erin Elwood. It was a standing room only crowd. Our new Councilmember Elwood seems to have a bit of a rock-star following – she packed the house! After the ceremony and all the photo ops that followed about 80% of the room emptied out.
Selection of Mayor Pro Tem
Then, in a bold move for her first day on the Council and the first significant agenda item of the evening, Elwood nominated Councilmember Zaprowski for Mayor Pro Tem. Way to jump right in! Councilmember Coughlin expressed concern because he thought they had agreed to rotate the position, but he didn’t do anything about it. It seems like, if he wanted to rotate the position, he could have nominated someone else, but he did not. At this point, Zaprowski had already commented, “I’d never not want to not do the city business but there is a kind of a game tonight that I’d want to get home to at some point,” during a discussion about adding additional items to the agenda. He was chuckling and he did ultimately vote to add the agenda items, but his comments implied that his focus was elsewhere. That, in itself, seems like enough of a reason to at least nominate someone else for the position. But there were no other nominations and Zaprowski was unanimously selected. Perhaps I was the only one in the room who wasn’t distracted by the scores of other people’s games.
The most discussed issue of the evening was a Resolution to oppose HB302 and SB172, which Council passed 6-1. This was obviously very important to the Mayor as he discussed it on three different occasions during the meeting. These bills, introduced during the 2019 session, propose to prohibit local governments from regulating building design elements of private homes.
The Mayor first opined on HB302/SB172 when discussing the motion to add the resolution to the agenda. He explained to Elwood, who has not previously seen the resolution or had a chance to read the bills in question, that he sees the bills as usurping local control over design standards. Later during the Mayor’s report, he offered further arguments against HB302/SB172 stating that he believes they will preempt the city from having any say in exterior building color, materials, style, and even interior layout and number of rooms. He thinks “the very essence of cityhood and really quite honestly countyhood if you are in an unincorporated area is self-determination” and “the essence of this bill is that it takes self-determination away from the very folks who created a city for that very purpose.” The resolution was then discussed again under new business where Mayor Bodker once again reminded Council that the bills would preempt the city from having a say in exterior design. Bradberry and Zaprowski also spoke on behalf of the resolution.
Only Elwood spoke up for individual property rights, and while she had not read the bills, she expressed a philosophical concern about putting such land use restriction on a property owner. I am grateful that at least one councilmember still values individual self-determination over the city’s rights to self-determination. As I see it, the question at hand is not whether the state should usurp the rights of the city, but whether the state should prevent the city from usurping the rights of the property owners. HB302 and SB172 represent a rare instance of the state protecting the rights of the individual from government encroachment and it should be lauded.
Elwood did the only thing she could do given that she did not have a chance to read the bills in question. She voted no. How refreshing to see a politician refuse to vote for something they haven’t read. We could use more of this in Washington! Even though it was a bit reminiscent of Elwood’s campaigning days when she seemed to answer every other question with, “I need to do some research on that”, in this case, it was completely warranted because this item was added to the agenda at the last minute. Kudos to her for standing her ground. Councilmembers need to learn to put items on the agenda in a timely manner so that everyone has time to do the research rather than trying to bully them into a yes vote. And they did try to pressure her. Zaprowski spoke about using their relationships to make this unanimous throughout at least the North Fulton area before offering this condescending acknowledgment, “I wholeheartedly support it and whether you do or not, that’s OK” – as if Ms. Elwood needed his permission to vote no.
Mayor Bodker pointed out that “the lead lobbyist this year is the son of one of the leaders of the Georgia House”. Bodker vehemently argued for Council to pass this resolution and used what seemed to be a scare tactic that an old established neighborhood like The Country Club of the South could have new homes built that don’t meet their standards. I thought this was very misleading because the bills would not preempt existing HOA covenants. The bills make no mention at all of HOAs. They only place restrictions on what local governments can do. Mayor Bodker did offer some clarification on this in an email exchange where he confirmed that the bills would not preempt existing HOA/POA covenants and explained that he was simply trying to summarize a fairly complex issue. So the bottom line is that you CCOTS folks don’t need to worry, SB302/SB172 will not undermine your community standards – at least not as it is currently written.
Instant Run-off Voting
Another interesting discussion was the last item of the night. The Instant Run-off Voting discussion was pushed to the Council meeting agenda because they ran out of time during the work session. Councilmember Coughlin offered an explanation of Instant Run-Off Voting (IRV), also known as Ranked-Choice Voting. There was no vote as several members of the council would like to do more research. But there were some clear opinions. It was disappointing that a large portion of the discussion was centered around what the State Legislature would do instead of what is best for Johns Creek. It seems that our City Council should vote for what is best for Johns Creek and then work to get approval from the Legislature rather than waiting to see what options the State Legislature offers. The Council was not shy about passing a resolution to oppose HB302 and SB172 so I am confused about the “wait and see” attitude being expressed regarding this issue.
Zaprowski was opposed because he thinks IRV would hurt minorities and would allow a plurality winner, which means a candidate could be elected with less than 50% of the votes. Zaprowski cites the 2005 article, “Instant Runoff Voting: The Cure That is Likely Worse Than the Disease” and another unidentified article, “Look, Chris, I read it in an article… by a professor at you know wherever it is”. Yes, yes he did say that, but I think he may have been referring back to the aforementioned article. Still, it provided a bit of amusement because we all know that if you found an article on the internet, it must be true. Mayor Bodker was uncomfortable with the idea because he thinks it would allow someone to win without achieving a direct majority of the votes.
Councilmember Weaver was also opposed because he did not have enough information. Perhaps he is waiting for a staff recommendation. I cannot count the number of times during the campaign, that Weaver said he would defer to staff recommendations. There was a lot of discussion about money spent on campaigning, changing the qualifying date to allow more time to campaign, increasing the civility of the campaigns, or possibly creating districts in Johns Creek. All were open additional education on the topic and Coughlin seemed determined to earn their votes through continued discussion. We will probably see this again at the next meeting.
To offer a simplified explanation, IRV attempts to simulate a run-off by using the second choice votes for the candidate who received the fewest number of votes in the first round of voting. The process continues until one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. The difference is that the run-offs happen instantly solving a “temporal constraint”. This allows for all of the advantages of run-off elections without the time delay or the drop in voter participation. One usually only hears the word “temporal” in relation to time travel and those mischievous temporal anomalies. Sadly, there was no time travel during the City Council meeting. We traveled through the grueling 3 hours at the usual pace. But there was discussion of solving a temporal constraint and that made the sci-fi geek in me smile. Admittedly, this could be attributed to giddiness due to the late hour.
Traffic Lights on Old Alabama
I can’t neglect to mention how, during the review of routine budget procurements, Zaprowski stood up for the residents regarding the new traffic lights on Old Alabama. The budget for the lights was almost pushed through as a routine procurement when Zaprowski asked why community inputs were not taken into consideration in the final design. According to Zaprowski, the residents asked about a deceleration (right turn) lane and that was not added to the drawings. Chris Haggard, Assistant Public Works Director, didn’t remember seeing the comments that Zaprowski referenced, and argued that a turn lane was not in the budget. This is exactly why we need Councilmembers to represent us. Staff is not accountable to the citizens and their objectives do not always align with Council. I am talking to you, Brian Weaver. This is exactly why you can’t do that if you intend to represent the citizens of Johns Creek as you were elected to do. Council needs to remember who is ultimately accountable to the people and Zaprowski did just that.
I think the Staff and the Council need this Yin and Yang relationship in order to work effectively. But they seem to have finally gotten into a groove. This was evident when Kimberly Greer, the assistant City Manager, presented her procurement requests and preemptively addressed the questions that she knew would be asked. Ms. Greer then received much praise from Councilmember Endres for her hard work. As she turned to leave the podium, what you couldn’t see on the video was her body language which could only be interpreted as a silent squee and a motionless fist pump. I initially thought this was excitement at being appreciated for a job well done, but she later confirmed that this was just excitement over actually getting budget items passed. Either way, it contributed to the positive vibe in the room. I couldn’t help sharing her enthusiasm.
Perhaps this is an indication that some of the dysfunction we kept hearing about during the 2019 campaigns is working itself out. Councilmember Zaprowski even joked earlier in the meeting, “Council, we really gotta be careful here. I’m gonna support this motion but we’re gonna act like we’re getting stuff done if we continue to push these TSPLOST projects forward.” This comment was delivered with a laugh but nevertheless indicates some positive momentum.
Johns Creek Advantage Presentation
Lynn Riley offered a presentation representing the board of Johns Creek Advantage as their Treasurer. She praised the City for its achievements and stressed the alignment of goals between the initiatives of the JCA and the Goals in the Comprehensive Plan. The mission of the JCA is to partner with City Council to convey a welcome message that we are “open for business here in Johns Creek”. Ms. Riley campaigned for a City Development Authority in Johns Creek. She indicated that, in spite of aggressively pursuing projects, we did not win any in 2019. There was no indication of why those projects are being awarded elsewhere.
Bodker commented on his jealousy of Town Centers in some of our neighboring towns, mentioning Duluth, Suwanee, Alpharetta, and Peachtree Corners. He instructed the Council to “Get it done.”
Eagle Scouts and Public Comment
Earlier in the evening, there was the ceremonial butchering of the names of the three Eagle Scouts being recognized. Sahith Sangabathula bore the brunt of it, but he handled it with grace. I suppose he is used to it, but really, can’t we give the clerk some notes with pronunciation symbols so that she can say the names correctly. It wouldn’t take that much effort to verify the pronunciations before the meeting so that these young men can be honored for their efforts instead of being turned into the punchline of a joke. They weren’t the only ones to have their names mispronounced though. The Mayor had a time pronouncing the names for public comment. He finally gave up and just started spelling names until he got to Bennett Bryan. He seemed quite pleased to be able to pronounce at least one name correctly. Again, c’mon people, let’s add a “how do you pronounce your name” line to the comment cards and give the Mayor a little help.
Speaking of Bennett Bryan, what the heck was that?! He presents himself as an attorney who represents local elected officials. I thought maybe he was here to offer his services, having heard about the potential legal troubles after the Council launched an investigation into the conduct of the Mayor and his aide, Craig Kidd. But then he announced his candidacy for Georgia Court of Appeals so it was really just free advertising for his campaign. And this guy doesn’t even live in Johns Creek! I shouldn’t be mentioning it here and giving him more ink, but I was annoyed so now you can be annoyed at him too.
Next up in public comments were two poor chaps who have been fighting with the city for over a year about a sinkhole caused by a failing storm drain. As they approached the podium, the Mayor commented, “I hope you got my message earlier. If you haven’t I left you a voicemail…..” Ooops! That comment made sense when the gentlemen explained that they have been waiting for that call since the December meeting. Well, the Mayor agreed to meet with them to discuss the concern. We will follow up on this one and see what happens.
Also in public comment was a Ms. Prahalad, a very impressive eight grader who spoke on behalf of cricket in Johns Creek. I predict this young lady will do great things.
Several others spoke on behalf of cricket. I foresee a cricket field in Johns Creek’s future!
And just so you don’t miss anything important: The Morton Road pocket park is targeting a Halloween Ribbon Cutting. Council passed the other budget amendments on the agenda, including the Right of Way phase of the Cauley Creek Roundabout. The Mayor announced a DIY alarm line 404-843-6680 for when you get an alarm notification while you are out of town.
** No residents were deleted in the making of this editorial.