It is with more than a little disappointment that I have watched much of the debate about rezoning applications for apartments wander off the rails and into the realm of insults, name-calling and false information. The true topic of debate should be focused on the proposed developments defined in the applications for rezoning. Instead, much of the conversation has devolved into verbal assaults on “those types of people” who choose to live in apartments. Ironically, many of the comments about “those types of people” come from individuals who once were “those types of people”.
Much of the off-the-rails commentary seems to have arisen out of a lack of information concerning the process that must be followed in reviewing any application for a rezoning. That process is mandated by Georgia law as defined in the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, which is often referred to by attorneys and non-attorneys alike as OCGA.
Specifically, section 36-66 of OCGA details the steps that a municipality must take, and the policies that it must implement in processing rezoning applications. In Snellville, those policies are defined in Appendix B, Chapter 15 of the city’s Code of Ordinances. Nowhere, either in OCGA or Snellville’s Code of Ordinances, is any reference made to consideration of “those type of people” or any other kind of people– except for a paragraph in OCGA dealing with the location of drug rehabilitation facilities.
Even under the best of circumstances, the processing of rezoning applications is lengthy and time consuming. An applicant must first submit the necessary forms and information to the city’s Planning Department. The staff then reviews the application and addresses any deficiencies in form or content. Subsequently, the application, along with the Planning Department’s recommendations for approval or denial, (and any conditions) is passed on to the Planning Commission for its review. Members of the Commission then evaluate the application, determine whether it needs any modifications to confirm to zoning requirements, and votes to approve or deny it. The application, along with the Planning Commission’s recommendation is finally brought before the City Council for its review and ultimate vote to approve or deny.
With the variety of ordinances, engineering and land use considerations that apply to any rezoning, the review process involves far more work than the foregoing description might imply. It may take several months, and possibly over a year from the time an application is first submitted until it comes before the City Council.
The lengthy process can prove frustrating, especially when an application provokes an emotional response. However, by design, it allows all interested parties, proponents and opponents alike, the opportunity to review the facts and express their opinions. That’s one of the reasons it is essential that the prescribed process is followed. Another reason is that failure to comply with the applicable ordinances could result in legal ramifications.
As an example, a motion to rescind a previous zoning was recently placed on a Council meeting agenda. Oddly enough, only the five non-attorney members of the Council appeared to know that such a motion was illegal– a fact that the City Attorney confirmed during the meeting. Had a Council member made a motion, it could have been grounds for a lawsuit, which would have created more unnecessary legal expense for the city.
Whether a rezoning application is popular or unpopular, loved or hated, it should be reviewed as prescribed by OCGA and city ordinances. To do otherwise is neither legal nor proper.
The atheist group that filed a lawsuit demanding that the operators of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum (9/11 Museum) remove a steel cross from the museum’s grounds based its complaint on the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
The clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” forbids the government from establishing an official religion, and prohibits government actions that favor one religion over another. It also prohibits actions that favor religion over non-religion or vice versa.
In its complaint, the group American Atheists maintained that display of the cross at the museum was unconstitutional because it is a symbol of a religion. If that argument is taken to its logical conclusion, the display of no religious symbol is also unconstitutional as it could be argued that the non-display of a religious symbol is an indication that the government favors non-religion.
Examiner- Don Balfour has been the state senator for District 9 for over 20 years. In a previous primary, he overwhelmingly defeated two challengers. Perspectives have obviously changed as a result of last May’s primary, but in 2013, when you announced your decision to challenge Balfour, it seemed a bit arrogant.
Martin- I don’t think it was arrogant at all. I think there are a lot of voters who want an alternative and I wanted to offer myself as that alternative.
EXAMINER- By alternative, you mean someone who didn’t have a lot of legal issues?
MARTIN- No, not at all. Legal issues are one thing, properly representing the people who elect you is another. As a state senator, I think you have to be open and accessible. You have to communicate with the people in your district, and you have to listen to them because your job is to represent them and address their concerns and attempt to solve problems.
The problem with too many elected officials is arrogance— they think they are right and that the people who elected them are wrong. They think they know better than everyone else and they try to inject their opinions into every issue. That is exactly what I want to stop. I have a track record of working with others, listening to people and working to develop solutions that address the issues openly and honestly.
EXAMINER- That sounds good, but doesn’t every candidate say pretty much the same thing?
MARTIN I don’t know about that, I can only speak for myself. However, if you look back at the conflict over service delivery strategy between Gwinnett County and the cities within the county, I think you’ll see what I’m talking about. My opponent was a County Commissioner at the time and the record shows that he wasn’t listening and he was opposing a fair and equitable settlement. That dispute drove a wedge between city governments and the county government and cost taxpayers millions. And I think the County Commissioners who were in office at the time are responsible for that.
EXAMINER- That brings up an interesting question. All or part of five cities are included in District 9– Dacula, Grayson, Lawrenceville, Lilburn and Snellville. How do you see the role of a state senator with respect to the cities and the county?
MARTIN- The people who live in these cities are also residents of the county, so I think a state senator has several roles. He or she works for all of them, yet at times they may have conflicting interests. I spent 8 years as a city councilman so I know first hand the vital role that city governments play in people’s lives. The county government also plays a vital role and while city and county governments usually work independently, they also have to be able to work together. A state senator should have a friendly working relationship with both city and county officials so that if the need arises, he can help in whatever process is necessary to successfully achieve a goal or resolve a dispute.
EXAMINER- Again, that sounds like great campaign rhetoric. But when it comes to resolving disputes, aren’t you between a rock and a hard spot. How do get in the middle of a dispute like the one between Gwinnett County and the cities and not alienate one side or the other?
MARTIN- You take the time to research and understand the problem, you evaluate what each side sees as a solution. Then you work with the proposed solutions to develop one that serves the best interests of the majority of people involved. If you try to ram a proposal down someone’s throat, sure you’re going to alienate them. But if you help develop an ethical and logical solution, I don’t think you alienate anyone. Sure, some people may be upset, but I think everyone appreciates that you are part of the conversation.
EXAMINER- Can you give me an example?
MARTIN- Sure. How about the Gwinnett county trash ordinance? A lot of people are STILL unhappy about having that rammed through by a group of Commissioners who didn’t listen to the people who elected them. It was poorly thought out, it caused an expensive lawsuit, it infringes on the rights of our citizens, and the conversation was pretty much all one way– here’s the trash plan and here’s why you should like it. My opponent was a strong supporter of that plan. He didn’t listen then and I don’t I don’t think he’ll listen if he becomes a state senator.
This trash ordinance was supposedly needed because some people were not paying for trash service and dumping their garbage illegally. Garbage truck traffic was another concern because trucks from different companies were driving through the same subdivision. Those problems could have been solved by allowing individual subdivisions the option of joining a county plan or choosing one of their own. Sure, that might have created some enforcement challenges but it would have been a much less intrusive solution. It would not have trampled on property owners options, it wouldn’t have required payment in advance for trash service, it wouldn’t have includes a fee on your property tax bill and it wouldn’t have brought the risk of having a lien placed against your property if you refused to pay for substandard service. I find it strange that my opponent calls himself a conservative yet was a major supporter of a law that is a text book example of government overreach.
EXAMINER- A lot of people call themselves conservatives. You call yourself a conservative. So what does that mean? What does a conservative look like when he or she is an elected official– like a state senator?
MARTIN- A real conservative believes in less government, less interference in people’s lives and less spending. Let’s cut to the chase– that’s an expression you’re familiar with– what you’re really asking about is the difference between me and my opponent. I think our records speak for the differences between us better than anything I can say. When Mike was a county commissioner, he voted for the trash plan we already talked about, he voted for a taxpayer funded baseball stadium that cost over $30 million more than original proposal, he voted several times to table a private citizen’s application to have a cell tower built on his property and then voted to allow the cell tower to be built right next door on county property. That vote denied a privat citizen the opportunity to receive an income of about $1,000 a month. He was also part of a county commission that increased the operating budget by 49% and he voted to raise his own salary. By comparison, while I was a Lawrenceville City Council member we delivered real tax cuts, we cut spending, we made real improvements in the city and I never voted to raise my own salary. And when it came to light that some people were engaged in unethical spending practices, I didn’t ignore it. I stood up to open an investigation and put an end to it. I didn’t just talk about being a conservative, I voted that way. And that’s the way I’ll vote in the state senate.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to interview Nancy Jester, a former member of the DeKalb county school board who was then a candidate for state school superintendent. It will come as no surprise that one of the topics we touched on in that interview was Common Core, a program Jester vigorously opposes.
On the other side of the debateis former governor Sonny Purdue. In an editorial appearing in The National Review Online, Perdue addressed criticism of Common Core State Standards. After mounting a variety of defenses and taking critics to task, Perdue closed with a statement that he is a conservative Republican from the south and, “Core Standards will improve the quality of education in schools at a time when only one in four students will graduate from high school fully prepared for college.
Ultimately, there is no reasonable argument against that.”
Perdue would be absolutely correct if he wasn’t dead wrong. The fatal flaw in his statement is, “Core standards will improve the quality of education”. In and of themselves, standards can not improve anything; they define desired standards of knowledge, yet completely fail to address the means by which those standards are to be achieved. The Common Core standards also fail to address differences in student abilities and learning rates and the variety of teaching methods needed to accommodate them.
Jester put Common Core in its proper perspective stating, “I don’t believe that setting standards will drive achievement. For instance, in the 2001 “No Child Left Behind” program, the law said that by 2014 everybody in every sub-group tested was going to be measured as proficient in these specified categories. Okay, that was the standard– everybody was going to be proficient– but that’s not a method, that’s a hope. Setting a standard is like a hope– I hope that if this standard is set, students will achieve it.”
Of course, proponents of Common Core ignore the disconnect between standards and achievement, and the fact that the former doesn’t establish a method for the latter. Instead, proponents attempt to spin a distaste for Common Core as a resistance to improving education. In fact, the opposite is true. Vigorous opponents of Common Core are strongly in favor of improving student achievement and see Common Core as an impediment to reaching that goal. As Jester stated, “Saying you’re against Common Core does not mean you’re against standards, doesn’t mean you’re against high standards, doesn’t mean you think everything is okay with existing standards, because I don’t think they are okay. But I don’t think the way to improve student achievement is through yet another bureaucracy– a standards bureau that is not going to be within the purview of any state. It’s another national type organization and we don’t have a good track record with that- the federal Department of Education does not have a good track record. It’s bureaucracy, and bureaucracy perpetuates bureaucracy, and compliance with bureaucracy and the incumbent paperwork.”
One of the alleged benefits of Common Core is the ability of states to compare the test scores across state lines. What proponents neglect to mention is that only 16 states are participating in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, (PARCC) the testing protocol developed to evaluate student compliance with the Common Core standards. It’s extremely expensive to administer and unnecessary. For decades. schools have used Norm-Referenced tests that evaluate a broad range of skills that children should know at various points in their school career. The scores are given to parents so they can see how their child performed relative to every other child who took the test that year. If your child is at the 80th percentile, he or she is scoring at or above 80% of the children in the nation taking that test.
The picture of educational systems around the nation are often obscured by massaged statistics and lame excuses. That won’t change unless parents start asking tough questions of educators and legislators as a means of bringing about better accountability and improved education. One example- in the Southeast, Georgia spends more per pupil than every state that borders it, yet has a lower graduation rate. Other states may be in the same position, yet taxpayers are largely unaware of it. Like other states, Georgia has overspent on bureaucracy at the expense of the classroom. The result is that costs have been driven up and achievement has been driven down.
Common Core will only exacerbate the cost/result ratio of education systems across the nation. It is yet another scheme that will ultimately increase federal government intrusion into an area that is rightfully within the purview of state and local governments.
The fourth day of July, 2014 marks the 237th anniversary of the grand social experiment known as the United States of America. Like all experiments, this one continues to evolve as our nation continues its journey towards the ultimate definition of a republic.
Although it is often called a democracy, (even by people who should know that it’s not) the United States of America is fortunately anything but. To some, the difference between a democracy and a republic is simply the assemblage of letters used to spell each word. Yet these two words are anything but interchangeable. In a democracy, the majority rules. Period. Neither individuals, nor minority groups have any safeguards to protect them from the absolute power of a government elected by the majority. Such a government is in fact all powerful; its decisions cannot be appealed through the legal system.
A republic is a radically different form of government as it places the rights of the individual above all else. In a republic, government is charged with preventing the majority from trampling the rights of individuals and minorities, within the confines of governing documents. By definition, a republic employs constitutionally limited government, which has its power divided amongst three branches—executive, legislative and judicial.
Such an arrangement is fraught with challenges as the power and influence of minorities ebbs and flows with population changes, as fatal flaws of once-sacred institutions are revealed and as social values evolve. On occasion, the tail may actually seem to be wagging the dog, as protection of minority rights appear to come at the expense of the rights of the majority.
Yet as difficult as some of the challenges have been, the republic that is the United States of America has survived, grown and prospered. And that is what we celebrate on this 4th of July. Our grand experiment has changed the world for the better, and it will do so for the foreseeable future, so long as our resolve continues to defend our Republic, and we remain committed to Abraham Lincoln’s vision, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Last week, I attended the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) annual conference in Savannah. In addition to instructional courses and seminars, the conference provides an opportunity to spend time with mayors and council members of cities, large and small, from all over the state.
This year, when I spoke with elected officials, from cities near and far, a common topic was the lawsuit filed by Snellville’s mayor against the city. Invariably, the mayors and council members of other cities shook their heads, offered their sympathies and went on to ask and comment about the great things we’re doing in Snellville. They universally recognize that the lawsuits are a consequence of an unfortunate electoral aberration. But more importantly they are perceptive enough to recognize that in spite of ill-advised lawsuits and the challenges that result, Snellville has become a leader in civic accomplishments.
Throughout the lawsuit ordeal, I’ve heard and read comments by residents of our city expressing, concern, dismay, disgust and embarrassment. While I share some of those feelings, embarrassment is not one of them– especially after talking with elected officials from other cities.
These people know the realities of city government. They can read between the lines and discern between legitimate concerns and frivolous self-serving activities. And to a person, the city officials I spoke with view Snellville with admiration and, to a degree, envy. They see a city that in just a few years has established benchmarks that other municipalities strive to achieve. They see an award winning Farmer’s Market, a community garden, a world-class veteran’s memorial, a program to help feed people in need, an acclaimed series of festivals and concerts, a first class entrepreneurial program, and an economic development initiative that has made Snellville THE place to open new businesses and expand existing ones.
Without question, the negative publicity created by lawsuits and the resulting media circus has had a less than positive impact on our city; without the bad press, Snellville would be enjoying even greater success. But that’s not necessarily cause for embarrassment. People who navigate the landscape of municipal government everyday, people who know the intimacies of city operations and city councils, people who know local politics, know the singular source of the negative publicity. As well, they also know the multiple sources of positive action, success and civic pride. They know that Snellville will survive and prosper. And they know that a city is defined by its challenges, successes and accomplishments. Not by a singular aberration.
Currently in its 11th edition, “Robert’s Rules of Order” is a 669-page volume that delineates a set of rules for properly implementing parliamentary procedure. Commonly referred to as RONR- Rules of Order Newly Revised- Robert’s Rules (or any derivation thereof) is designed to assure that all members of a council, board, commission or group (formally referred to as a deliberative assembly) have an equal opportunity to participate and express their opinions. While the concept behind Robert’s rules is simple, implementing those rules can be very complex, especially when debate becomes confrontational. That complexity prompted Buddy Scott of Snellville’s Downtown Development Authority to organize a parliamentary procedure workshop, which took place at Snellville City Hall on March 29, 2014.
Everyone who attended was rewarded with an outstanding presentation by Dennis Conway, a Professional Registered Parliamentarian. Mr. Conway explained many of the finer points of Robert’s Rules of Order and their proper application. However, if you’re not involved with a group that holds meetings to deliberate issues and make decisions, the concept and application of parliamentary procedure rules may be a bit of a mystery.
The term “parliamentary procedure” derives from the rules that were used by the English Parliament, which were implemented by American colonists as early as the 1600s. However, no specific set of broadly accepted procedural rules existed until 1876, when Henry Robert released the first edition of “Robert’s Rules of Order”. Although it isn’t the only set of rules governing deliberative assemblies, RONR has become almost universally adopted within the bylaws of assemblies ranging from a handful to a roomful of members.
RONR is specifically designed to handle the challenge of getting a group of people with potentially different opinions and viewpoints to debate the relative merits and drawbacks of their positions regarding specific issues, arrive at a proposed solution and vote to implement it. In some instances, the solution desired by the majority of members may be to tak no action at all. In that case a proposed agenda item may not ever come to a vote.
As an example, if a member of a city council decided that the walls inside City Hall needed to be painted, he or she could place an item on a meeting agenda for consideration and action on issuing a request for quotations and awarding a painting contract to the lowest bidder. Such an agenda item would normally include specifics as to cost, paint color and time frame for completion of contracted work.
Before the staff could issue a request for a quotation, (RFQ) the council would have to debate the details to be included in the RFQ and then vote to proceed. To that end, a council member would make a motion containing all of the vital information needed in the RFQ. Another council member would have to “Second” the motion before it could be debated. By either making or seconding a motion, neither council member is stating that he or she is in favor of issuing the RFQ, only that they have an interest in discussing it. If none of the Council members thought the walls needed to be painted, or simply objected to the language in the RFQ, none of them would make a motion. If only one member was in favor of issuing an RFQ, there would be no second. Without both a motion and a second, there can be no discussion and consequently no vote. The agenda item would then be said to have died “for lack of a motion”, or “for lack of a second”.
If a motion is made and seconded, it’s open for debate. This is where things can get really dicey if there are significant differences of opinion. Within a deliberative assembly operating under Robert’s Rules of Order, all members are equal. The rules are therefore designed to enable the meeting chairman to provide every member with an opportunity to present his or her opinion, and where appropriate, to allow public comment. To prevent a free-for-all, and people talking over each other, all comments are required to be made to the chairman.
After a motion is made and seconded, and debate is concluded, the chairman typically calls for a vote. However, rather than being in favor or against a motion as presented, one or more members of an assembly may want to make modifications before a vote is taken. In the painting contract example, one member might want to change the maximum cost, or the color. That member would then make a motion to amend the original motion; if the amended version were seconded, the council would then vote on it.
There are a number of other motions that an assembly member can make, each one designed to assure orderly and fair discussion. To that end, it is the responsibility of the meeting chairman to ensure that each member not only has the ability to speak at the appropriate time, but follows the appropriate rules when participating in discussions or making motions.
Robert’s Rules is designed to cover virtually any type and size of assembly. As such, many of the rules may rarely apply to a small body such as a city council or county commission. Consequently, many codes of ordinances include rules of procedure (primarily a sub-set of Robert’s Rules) along with a reference that a specific edition of RONR applies to any situation not covered by the rules of procedure in the code of ordinances.
On occasion, the wording of a city’s or county’s rules of procedure may differ slightly from that in Robert’s Rules. This is typically done to simplify the running of meetings that include a limited number of voting members or deal with relatively simple agenda items. However, regardless of the size of an assembly or the nature of the matters it deliberates, agenda items, all rules of procedures are designed to facilitate meetings that are conducted fairly, with all members being afforded an equal opportunity to participate.
For the past few years, “Cut To The Chase” posts have largely dealt with Snellville City Council matters. Unfortunately, the overwhelming number of those posts focused on explanations of the controversies that have plagued the city. Although my intention was to present accurate facts in an effort to quell the negative publicity the city was receiving, my posts seemed to increase the negative dialogue, rather than reducing it. So November 6, 2013 was the date of my last post regarding Snellville city matters.
As you might expect, negative publicity has continued. That’s unfortunate because it overshadows the truly great things that are happening in Snellville. The best evidence that Snellville is moving in a positive direction, and not being held hostage by a group of petty, self-serving throwbacks, is the city’s Marcy Pharris Volunteer of the Year (VOTY) Awards banquet that was held at Summit Chase Country Club on March 8th.
Kurt and Gretchen Schulz were the well-deserving winners. Their efforts to transform the Snellville Farmer’s Market and Community Garden@ Snellville from concepts to realities have dramatically changed the city’s social landscape. In accepting the award, Kurt and Gretchen were their typically gracious selves, acknowledging the dedication of a host of other volunteers who are always lending a hand.
This year’s Volunteer of the Year award winner was selected from a group of nominees who were voted volunteer of the year by members of the individual groups that serve the city. The
Individual category volunteers of the year were Gretchen and Kurt Schulz, Snellville Tourism and Trade; Marilyn Swinney, Snellville Farmers’ Market; Kathy Emanuel, Snellville Citizens Police Academy Alumni Association; Ileen Meggison, The Community Garden at Snellville; Ronnie Bentley, The Rotary Club of Gwinnett Sunrise; Grace L. Clower, The Snellville Lions Club.
In Snellville, selecting a Volunteer of the Year is a difficult task because there are so many people who actively participate with one or more of the city’s volunteer groups. For these volunteers, the only payback they seem to want is the opportunity to volunteer for something new.
Snellville residents can be proud of many things concerning their city, and our group of volunteers is at the top of the list.
The desire to provide health insurance for every citizen is a noble one, but can only be achieved if people who can afford insurance pay the premiums for those who cannot. Consequently, it is an economic impossibility for Obamacare to be implemented without significant additional taxes plus cost reductions in other areas. One of those areas is Medicare which will experience a $700 billion reduction in funding- euphemistically called “cost containment”, by the administration. And that’s just the tip of the latest iceberg. For more, click the link below.
Throughout Georgia, significantly increased traffic volumes combined with limited funding has motivated transportation engineers to develop new options to improve traffic flow. Diverging diamond and Continuous Flow Intersections are two of those options.
At first glance, the operational aspects of these intersections can be confusing, and even after viewing animation videos, it can be difficult to envision how these intersections will improve traffic flow. That’s especially true of the Continuous Flow Intersection (CFI) because the name is a bit of a misnomer. “Continuous flow” pertains to straight-through and left turn traffic (traveling in the same direction) flowing at the same time. In a conventional intersection, such as the one at Highway 78 and 124, the light turns green for traffic turning left before it turns green for vehicles traveling straight-through the intersection. This results in extended “red light” times as vehicles traveling through the intersection must wait until traffic turning left clears the intersection before getting a green light.
A CIF addresses this problem by adding left turn lanes on the left side of the roadway which allows left-turning vehicle to cross the highway before they get to the actual intersection. Since they are already on the left side of the roadway, they can pass through the intersection at the same time as vehicles traveling straight through it. That reduces wait time at the intersection. Additional lanes on the right side of the roadway reduce traffic stack-up by enabling vehicles to get out of the main flow of traffic well before they approach the intersection.
As an example, a driver traveling west on Highway 78 and planning to turn right on 124 will move into the right turn lane a few hundred feet before reaching the intersection. If traffic flow on 124 permits, the driver completes the turn and merges into the northbound lanes. During times of heavy traffic flow on 124, the driver waits in the right turn lane until the turn can be completed. To prevent traffic back-ups when volume is heavy, the 78/124 CFI will have two right turn lanes on Highway 78 heading west and Highway 124 heading south.
The CFI is primarily a project of the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT). The agency’s engineers determined that it was the best means of improving traffic flow at the 78/124 intersection, given existing budgetary and geographic constraints. A “flyover” intersection, such as the one at Highway 78 and Park Place in Stone Mountain, would in fact offer continuous flow, however, such an intersection is exponentially more expensive, consumes considerably more land and, for a number of reasons, is inappropriate for the middle of a city like Snellville.
Of course, the CFI won’t have the desired positive impact on traffic flow if there are back-ups at the intersections on both sides of it. That will be addressed through an updated system of traffic light controls and will be addressed by both the Georgia and Gwinnett County departments of transportation. Federal, state and county agencies are responsible for various sections of the highways that cross in the center of Snellville, so all are involved in the planning, funding and administration of the CFI initiative.
For its part, the Snellville city government doesn’t have much influence over the actual construction and design of the intersection. But by being actively involved in the planning process, it can make sure that execution is as non-invasive as possible, and that the intersection blends well with the Town Center plan.
The city is fortunate that both GDOT and county DOT representatives are not only open to discussion, but are encouraging it. At a meeting on November 14th, attended by all members of the Snellville City Council, it was apparent that GDOT is dedicated to completing the project on schedule, within budget and with an eye toward accommodating reasonable requests from the city.
The CFI is unquestionably the creation of “out of the box” thinking and while it will take a bit of getting used to, it will dramatically improve the flow of traffic at the 78/124 intersection. And that’s good for Snellville.