The Dunwoody Homeowners Association voted July 10 to hire an attorney to advise the organization about what state law says about DHA members also serving on city boards.
DHA will hire real estate attorney Seth Weissman and ask him to produce a written memo to the homeowners group that details how DHA members can avoid conflicts of interest while serving on city boards, such as the Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals.
Weissman will also be asked to give his opinion on free speech rights and open meeting law requirements, said DHA President Robert Wittenstein. The memo will be shared with DHA board members and also with the City Council and city staff.
The decision to hire an attorney came about after the Dunwoody Council attempted to prohibit DHA members from serving on city boards out of fear of lawsuits from developers because of potential conflicts of interest. The council backtracked the decision to do so after considerable backlash from DHA members.
“What we do [as DHA] is not unique and no other place in metro Atlanta has a city or county tried to create this wall of separation the lawyers for the city of Dunwoody are proposing,” Wittenstein said.
In an email to Wittenstein, Weismann said he was unaware of any court striking down a denial from a zoning board because one of its members was also serving on a neighborhood or civic association.
Wittenstein noted that the DHA is no different than the Buckhead Coalition, for example. He also pointed out that Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens was president of the East Cobb Civic Association, also a homeowners group, before being elected to the Cobb County Commission and did not resign his membership with East Cobb Civic Association while serving on the commission.
Wittenstein said when he heard about the email that went out to DHA members from the city’s legal team asking them to resign either from the DHA or their city board, he was ready to “declare war” on the city. But he realized nothing good would come from doing so. However, he is still angry that city officials did what they did in secret while also threatening DHA members with legal action if they spoke with anyone about the issue.
“The city’s actions are inexcusable,” Wittenstein said. “This is the first time we’ve had to be afraid of our own government.”
Wittenstein characterized the city’s actions as an “existential threat” on the mission of the DHA. Founded in 1970, the DHA was formed to represent homeowners to, first, the DeKalb County Commission and now to the Dunwoody City Council. As part of that mission, developers oftentimes come to DHA meeting seeking public input on proposed projects.
“If the developers will not come to us … then the homeowners will lose a valuable voice,” he said. “Above all else we cannot accept the idea of a wall … between us and the city.”
“If such a wall is put up by the city, the DHA will then become the parade committee,” Wittenstein said. “And that is not why were founded.”
One person attending the meeting questioned why developers had to “come before the DHA to kiss DHA’s ring” and not just go before the City Council with its proposal. He also said DHA represents about 1,000 homeowners out of a city with approximately 9,000 homeowners.
Former DHA President Stacey Harris said “there’s no ring kissing” at DHA meetings. “Information is disseminated and we get to ask questions and people get to see what is going on in their city,” she said.