The Sandy Springs Charter Review Commission quizzed one of the authors of the city’s charter on issues including public comment, term limits and the city’s property tax rate cap during a virtual meeting on March 4.
Oliver Porter chaired the city’s original charter commission, which drafted the legal framework on which the city was founded and operates. He also served on the 2011 Charter Review Commission. He was invited to discuss his experiences and answer questions about the process and decisions made during the city’s founding and the first commission.
Porter told members of the 2021 Charter Review Commission that attempts to impose term limits on the mayor and City Council were rejected by the legislature that were included in the original charter draft and when the 2011 Charter Review Commission repeated the suggestion.
Porter was responsible for the charter review process.
“At the last minute in those negotiations in that first charter commission, it struck me that we were doing something so different and something that none of us knew what we were doing, that maybe we ought to have some way to automatically review our work in five years. So I added a provision that said that we would have a review in five years,” Porter said.
The big issues of the 2011 commission were term limits and salaries.
Touchie Blad, vice chair of the current commission, asked Porter about the thinking behind putting in a cap on the city’s millage rate, since she said most cities set that property tax rate annually based on budget needs.
The city founders had several reasons for establishing the millage rate cap, Porter said.
“Probably the most relevant was that the word was out that [we] will go to massively increase taxes when we formed the city. So it was important to put a stake in the ground for the public to know that that was not going to happen,” he said.
They also thought the 4.731 millage rate was plenty because that was what the county charged Sandy Springs as a special service district.
“And we said we can do it better than the county has done it. So we should have plenty of money,” he said.
A growing tax base for the city makes him believe that rate still works.
The millage rate cap is not permanent, Gabriel Sterling, chair of the commission, said. If a rate hike is brought before city voters they have the power to raise the rates. An argument was made that this would make it hard to raise taxes, and he said that’s the idea.
Commission member Andrea Settles asked Porter why the legislature rejected term limits for the city’s elected officials.
“Politicians don’t like term limits,” Porter said.
Sterling said something to consider with term limits is that according to the charter, all council members and the mayor run for election at the same time. With term limits, leaving the elections on this schedule would mean a guarantee of a new set of city leaders with no retention of experience or knowledge on the City Council.
He said turnover has naturally occurred, with only Councilmember Tibby DeJulio remaining from the original City Council.
Sterling said another reason for electing everyone at the same time was to save the approximately $400,000 it cost to run an election, which staggered terms would require.
Commission member Ronda Smith, who serves as president of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, asked Porter why the City Council hasn’t used its authority to raise salaries for the mayor and council members consistent with the Consumer Price Index as the charter allows.
“Maybe Gabe has perspective on this as to why that hasn’t happened in the past. Maybe that’s a miss and something we haven’t focused on looking at every year,” she said.
Porter said he didn’t know why the measure was never used by any City Council. But, he said, the commission set a skimpy salary on purpose, with council members paid $12,000 and the mayor $25,000 annually.
“Our purpose was, we wanted volunteers. We didn’t want people who consider this a profession,” he said.
Sterling said the current salaries set by the legislature are $18,000 for council and $40,000 for the mayor.
Early discussions were held about creating at-large council seats elected by the entire city instead of just by a district’s voters, but the decision was to stick with the six districts.
The commission plans to meet twice in April and at least once each month after that through July, when their report is due. It will meet at 6 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month: April 1, May 6, June 3 and July 1. In addition, the commission will meet on March 18, the third Thursday of the month. Additional meetings may be scheduled.
The public can take part in the meetings, with the commission agreeing to enable the chat function in Zoom for their virtual meetings. City Clerk Raquel Gonzalez was asked to find out if it is possible to set up the Studio Theater at City Springs for public comment. The city’s land use hearings, including rezoning, use that method. Comment cards would still need to be submitted by noon on meeting days.
Sterling said the city will create a specific page on its website for the commission. It will include links to the city’s charter, the report and minutes from the 2011 Charter Review Commission, meeting schedules, agendas, meeting minutes and links to public comment cards.
Clarification: A previous version of this article incorrectly paraphrased commission member Ronda Smith as suggesting the charter’s treatment of the city’s elected officials’ salaries is incorrect, when her comments actually meant that the commission may want to hear perspectives on why that portion of the charter hasn’t been used.