The Austell City Council met on July 2 to approve the resurfacing of City Hall’s parking lot and nearby Mulberry Street, which is across the railroad tracks from City Hall. The council voted 6-0 in favor of the action. However, work on the project had finished by that time.
Mayor Joe Jerkins said council members agreed to go forward with the project before the official vote was made at the regular scheduled meeting.
“We got the OK to go forward on the telephone,” Jerkins said. “All the council members said go do it. We didn’t vote until we got the OK to do it. It’s just like telling them to do it and then we pay them. We don’t pay them before we do it.”
The cost of the project — which was not bid on — is $21,432 and is being paid for by SPLOST funding, officials said. The project is related to an Atlanta Regional Commission Livable Centers Initiative grant to enhance downtown streetscaping.
Council members said they were individually contacted before the meeting on June 14 during what they described as a “phone poll” by a city worker on behalf of the mayor.
They said they agreed to move forward with the last minute repaving request from city Public Works Director Randy Bowens because they believed it would save at least $5,000, as opposed to having the Marietta-based C&S Paving crew that was already on site repaving surrounding streets return at a later date with their equipment.
The repaving work began June 14 after the phone call and was completed on June 21 before the meeting, according to the city.
Council members refrained from using the term “vote” to describe their approval for the project.
“It was a poll and we actually approved it at the city council meeting,” said Councilwoman Suzanne Thomason.
Councilman Martin Standard said he thought there was a provision in the city’s charter allowing such a poll to be conducted for cost savings, but was unable to locate it.
David Hudson, an Augusta attorney for the Georgia Press Association, said there is nothing illegal about city officials conducting a phone poll in advance of a meeting in order to line up support. Then the agenda item can lawfully be presented and voted on at an open meeting.
However, using such verbal commitments as authorization to actually act without having a meeting and a vote is in violation of the law, he said.
“Reaching an actual decision by telephone without going through the requirements of the open meetings law would be a violation, and actually doing the work could have exposed the person who authorized the work to liability for expending public funds on an unapproved project,” Hudson said.
Such “phone polls” by the mayor and council are not uncommon and happen “periodically,” officials said.
“It’s not like we have a phone poll and say, ‘Let’s not bring this up in the council meeting.’ That would be wrong,” said Standard. “When you do it because of expediency and efficiency, and then you bring it up in public record, then that’s different.”
City attorney Scott Kimbrough, who attended the July 2 meeting, said in spite of the council’s approval during the meeting, there was no reason for the council to vote on the project beforehand because of the size of the contract. Only projects estimated to cost $100,000 or more are required by state law to go to bid, he said.
“As far as I am aware, there was no violation of the meeting law as I know the facts to be,” Kimbrough said.