Term limits, staggered terms and salaries for the mayor and council may be part of the recommendations the Sandy Springs Charter Review Commission makes in its report to the Georgia General Assembly.

The commission received written feedback from the city administration about specific parts of the city charter at its June 3 meeting. They also discussed a variety of topics that could be suggested changes to the charter.

Tochie Blad asked if the city’s use of a private probation company was putting defendants deeper in debt.

The Georgia Municipal Association describes a city charter as establishing “the government structure of the city and defines boundaries, specific powers, functions, essential procedures, and legal control.” The commission is tasked with reviewing the city’s charter to make sure that the document that set up the city government is serving its purpose, and recommends to the General Assembly any changes to the city charter.

Millage rate – The city’s millage rate will not be part of the discussions. Set by the charter at 4.731 mills, it can be changed only with approval by city voters. No City Council has proposed a change to the millage rate since the city formed in 2006.

Private probation Commissioners didn’t seem satisfied with the answer provided on how private probation works with the municipal court. “Probation is contracted to a private company for probation services. They lease building space from the city at the current courthouse,” was the answer the commission received.

“I feel like, honestly, this is an incomplete answer,” Commission Chair Gabe Sterling said.

“I guess the bigger question would be, are we putting folks that are already stretched into more debt?” Commission Vice Chair Tochie Blad said. She observed a virtual session of municipal court. The judge prorated the fine on the ticket after the defendant said how long it would take to pay off the fine.

Term limits The commission invited council members to offer their opinions on the city charter. Most council members told commission members that they felt voters should impose term limits on councilmembers by voting them out when they feel the elected officials aren’t properly representing them. However, commission members have been divided on the issue in previous discussions.

Staggered terms – It costs more to run elections every two years, instead of four. Councilmembers have recommended to the commission that they not ask the General Assembly to change the charter to staggered terms. Instead, they want to keep the current charter language that puts all council seats and the mayor on the ballot every four years. Commissioner members haven’t come to a consensus on the issue. 

Salaries – Council members were mostly ambivalent about an increased salary, saying public servants shouldn’t be doing it for the money. But several residents said the salary was an obstacle to getting more residents to take on part-time council and mayor’s posts. Several commission members have said a higher salary was needed to help offset the costs of public service.

Remote meeting – Once the pandemics ends, virtual meetings of the City Council, its boards and commissions won’t be allowed under the city charter. Sterling wants the city attorney’s office to determine if language can be added to give City Council authority to allow virtual votes if health issues arise or a member is out of town. A related catch-all emergency section also will be discussed.

Charter language consistency – The commission will consider removing gender specific language such as instances of he/she to be more inclusive and to be consistent throughout the charter.

“I am a little bit of a nitpicker when it comes to grammar and language, I want it to be consistent throughout the whole document. If you said council person once, you need to say council person throughout the entire document,” said Commissioner Ronda Smith, who volunteered to compile a list of inconsistencies.

Aspirational language – Language requiring diversity in boards and commissions, and in the wording of oaths of office, may get suggested as changes to the charter.

Environmental – Environmental protections, such as recycling, was another suggestion the commission will consider for its report. A section on flood protection also is up for discussion.

Revenue bonds – Language stating the city specifically cannot approve revenue bonds beyond its ability to repay them could be another charter suggestion.

City attorney funding – Setting the city attorney’s salary through the charter was suggested. Sterling said that could hamper the city’s ability to resolve lawsuits because litigants would know when funding maxed out. They could force the city into settling some lawsuits under unfavorable terms.

Special elections – When Graham McDonald resigned his District 3 seat in 2016 to make an unsuccessful run for a state representative seat, the timing would have left one city district without representation for several months. Ballot submission deadlines had passed.The city was faced with leaving the district without representation until the after the November general election. Instead, the city paid for a costly special election on the same day as a countywide election. ““It was expensive. It was difficult,” Sterling said. He wants the council to have the ability to appoint an interim replacement in such an event.  

Signage – Recognizing what happened when Fulton County’s sign ordinance was struck down and more than 300 billboard applications were immediately made, commissioners will consider adding language in the city charter to avoid that kind of problem at Commissioner Ronda Smith’s suggestion.

“When Fulton County lost a lawsuit, they had no backup sign ordinance, which basically says if one part of this is found to be unconstitutional, everything else still holds,” Sterling said.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis is a freelance journalist based in metro Atlanta.