Mayor Denis Shortal told members of the Dunwoody Homeowners Association at its July 10 meeting that the City Council should have discussed in public a recent decision to prohibit DHA members from serving on city boards, but that the reason to do so was to limit the city’s financial and legal liability.
Shortal talked to a packed room of DHA members for about 30 minutes to explain why he and a majority of the council supported the recent decision to ask DHA members serving on city boards, such as the Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals, to either resign from DHA or the city board due to a possible conflict of interest that could lead to lawsuits against the city by developers.
After backlash from DHA, the council backtracked its decision and voted to suspend enforcement of the directive that was apparently decided in an executive session with no public input.
“I’ll be the first to admit that what we should have done on this issue is … we should have brought it out into the open,” Shortal said. “We were all involved. I’m just one, and it takes at least four” council members to make a decision, he said.
Shortal explained that while the council doesn’t vote during an executive session, a consensus is reached during the closed-door meeting before an action can move forward.
Shortal said the council agreed to evaluate who can serve on city boards as a direct result of lawsuits the city is facing. One of the lawsuits was settled July 10 during a special called City Council meeting.
At that meeting, the council voted to approve a settlement agreement with the Center for Discovery which had sued the city in DeKalb Superior Court and federal court over its denial to allow it to open a home treatment facility on Manget Way for teenage girls with eating disorders. Total payout from the city as part of the settlement will not exceed $250,000 with the city’s insurance picking up a bulk of the payout of up to $600,000.
With bigger, multi-million dollar development projects on the city’s radar, it was time for the council to take a hard look at who can serve on city boards, Shortal said.
“DHA hears these [development] requests before they get to the city and many decision makers are on DHA and on city boards — that’s something we have to look at,” he said. “You’ve been pre-briefed … and without a doubt that creates significant liability.”
DHA member and State Sen. Fran Millar said the DHA represents homeowners, an important constituency.
“All DHA is is one perspective,” Millar said. While taking a look at whether DHA board members can serve on city boards is a reasonable decision, targeting the entire DHA membership was wrong, Millar told Shortal. Millar also said the lawsuits the city is facing have nothing to do with the DHA.
Shortal agreed that prohibiting all DHA members from serving on a city board was “ultra safe” and the council would likely look at only DHA board members.
Bob Lundsten, a longtime DHA member, told Shortal the city’s trust was violated when it issued the directive from behind closed doors.
“What you did and how you did it is disturbing,” Lundsten said.
“The trust in this city is gone and the reason why, Mr. Mayor, is this was done in an illegal executive session,” he said. “The minute [the council] starts talking policy, drafting policy, that’s a violation of the city trust.”
Lundsten also criticized the city’s legal team for issuing an opinion that DHA members should not serve on city boards. “The advice you are getting from this law firm is the advice it gives to all city startups — they want to do stuff in fear of litigation.”
At this point, the meeting became tense as Shortal answered Lundsten by saying he didn’t think the city’s trust has been violated and then started reading an article about Lundsten’s recent reprimand from the DeKalb Ethics board.
“Aww, Denny, that’s perfect,” Lundsten said. Many DHA members also spoke up and told Shortal his comment was out of line.
Shortal closed the meeting thanking the DHA for its service to the city. He said said the Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals would receive more training. He also gave a warning.
“The developers are sitting and waiting for you to make a wrong move,” he said.