Dunwoody city officials have informed members of the Dunwoody Homeowners Association who also serve on city boards that they must choose one or the other as part of what may be a strategy to avoid potential lawsuits from developers.
The city also threatened to slap any members who spoke publicly about the policy with an ethics violation, leaving many questions unanswered as to why this decision was made.
Members of the city boards were informed June 17 via email that DHA members must choose between being on the DHA or staying on their appointed city positions, according to DHA President Robert Wittenstein.
A city official who asked to remain anonymous said the mandate affects only the 24 members of the Planning Commission, Zoning Board of Appeals, the Construction Board of Adjustment and Appeals and the Design Review Advisory Committee.
As of June 22, only one DHA member has resigned a city post. Gerri Penn decided to step down from the ZBA and remain on the DHA, said City Spokesperson Bob Mullen. Mullen said he had no other information about the city’s new policy.
Penn made the decision to resign after receiving a phone call from Mayor Denis Shortal and before the email was sent out, according to a city official.
Wittenstein, who met with Mayor Denny Shortal and City Manager Eric Linton on June 20 to discuss the situation, criticized city officials for making the decision in closed-door meetings.
Their decision to then threaten DHA members with an ethics violation who spoke publicly about the mandate also angered Wittenstein.
“Discussing and adopting this policy in secret and threatening board members with ethics violation charges if they disclose it is inexcusable,” Wittenstein said in a June 21 email to DHA members. The DHA says it has 1,000 members.
“Note that this isn’t a conflict between being a board member or executive board member of DHA and being on a city board or commission…it is being a dues-paying member of DHA. No other community organization has been targeted,” Wittenstein said in the email.
In an interview, Witttenstein said how the city came about making such a policy is “stifling” the local government process. “Those are the kinds of things representative governments should not be doing,” he said.
Shortal on June 21 declined to comment on the situation, saying he would issue a statement later. Attempts to contact Linton were not successful. Members of City Council either did not return requests for comment or would not discuss the situation for publication.
As part of the new city policy, city councilmembers are also now banned from attending DHA meetings where many times developers present their plans before presenting them to the city, Wittenstein said.
The reason, as explained by the city to Wittenstein, is that a council member may be unduly influenced by a community discussion on a project and that could in turn affect their vote. And if a developer is unhappy with a council vote, the developer may decide to take the city to court for that reason.
“This deeply concerns me,” Wittenstein said. “The idea a city councilmember shouldn’t be in a room with a developer explaining to community members what they have planned …. That’s helpful and informative. That sense the council has to be isolated – [the city] is completely misreading how the process ought to work.”
Wittenstein, a former city councilman himself, said DHA members will discuss the topic at the group’s July 10 meeting. Shortal and Linton have been invited to attend the meeting.
Wittenstein said he received a phone call from City Attorney Cecil McClendon on June 16 that an email was going out to certain DHA members on June 17 and that he may want to speak to the mayor and city manager.
On Monday, June 20, Wittenstein met with Shortal and Linton and said Shortal did most of the talking, explaining they were doing what they were doing based on legal advice.
When Wittenstein asked for a copy of the policy, he was told there was none written down, he said. He noted that votes cannot be made in executive session.
“They essentially adopted a policy without a vote, an unwritten policy,” Wittenstein said.
Shortal and Linton told Wittenstein the policy was developed in an effort to head off any possible lawsuits, Wittenstein said.
“They explained their position and we talked about their rationale … which is to avoid the possible risk of a lawsuit,” Wittenstein said. “They want to reduce their vulnerability to a lawsuit.”
The DHA was heavily involved in the recent proposed Crown Towers mixed-use development. DHA members met with developers several times and agreed to support the project in exchange for such promises as payment of a $760,000 “voluntary impact fee” to be used toward park space in the Perimeter. There was also a great deal of back-and-forth on what percentage of the residential units should be owner-occupied as opposed to rental.
On May 23, the developers pulled back the rezoning request for the project planned for the former Gold Kist site near I-285. They said they did so because they were unsure if City Council would vote to approve their rezoning request.
Several councilmembers expressed frustration with DHA’s involvement in the Crown Towers development process, explaining there was no way the city could legally uphold agreements made between the DHA and the developers.
“My guess is they were disturbed by our role in Crown Towers and feel we crossed some line,” Wittenstein said. “But what line that was, I don’t know.”
DHA also played a role in negotiations with the townhome development near Dunwoody Village that the council approved in February.
Wittenstein said the idea of a discussion of whether or not DHA members should be appointed to city posts is one worth having – but in public. “That’s a healthy discussion to have,” he said.
And the discussion has been had in the past with DHA members serving on city boards or commission agreeing to recuse themselves from any vote that could be perceived as a conflict of interest, Wittenstein said.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated 27 DHA members received the email from the city.