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Guyton City Council starts 2020 smoothly
Russell Deen
Post 2 Councilwoman Hursula Pelote (left) listens as Mayor Russell Deen addresses the audience early in the Jan. 14 meeting. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff

GUYTON —  It’s unanimous!

Participants in Guyton City Council’s first meeting of 2020 were agreeable. There wasn’t a hint of the discord that has plagued it in recent months. The Jan. 14 vote on every agenda item that required one was 5-0.

Before the meeting at City Hall, three new council members were sworn in — Mayor Russell Deen, Post 1’s Marshall Reiser and Post 2’s Hursula Pelote. They joined incumbents Post 3’s Joseph Lee and Post 4’s Michael Johnson.

Deen set the tone for the meeting shortly after taking the oath of office from interim City Clerk Linda Rineair. 

“... the greatness of Guyton is the people in this room and the people of this community,” he said. “We can move forward together. We can do great things together and I firmly believe we can bring about a golden age for our city together if we continue to encourage each other, listen to each other and laugh with each other as we should.

“I think only good things can happen with our city.”

Deen’s remarks were interrupted twice by noise from the device Rineair uses to record meetings.

During the first case, the new mayor playfully barked at Rineair, “You’re fired!” His reaction drew chuckles from the audience.

Hirings and firings have been no laughing matter for the council recently. Guyton has an interim city manager, interim city clerk and an interim police chief. The police chief, Joseph Coppolla, was demoted last summer by  Mayor Jeff Lariscy but was restored to his position by a 3-2 vote council vote.

Lee, Johnson and Dr. Franklin Goldwire, who didn’t seek re-election to the Post 2 seat, backed Coppolla’s reinstatement. They also blocked three attempts to name retired Savannah Police Department Maj. Richard Zapal police chief and overturned Lariscy’s decision to ax former City Manager Daniel Hoffman, who resigned last month.

Additional meeting conflicts routinely erupted from the audience. Council members and residents have openly argued with each other, occasionally hurling insults. Interim City Manager Brett Bennett tried to block such episodes by establishing new expectations.

Deen said residents are expected to put their names on a sign-in sheet when they enter the meetings and approach a podium at the front of council chambers if they want to speak.

“We are going to stop comments from the gallery and the quick jabs back and forth,” Deen said. “Hopefully, we will have cooperation, ease of service and respect in this room. I appreciate you all for following these rules.”

In another new twist, every agenda item except one was presented by Bennett or the mayor. The lone exception was the consideration to establish a committee to analyze the status of the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Other new business included:

— Johnson was nominated to serve as mayor pro tem by Reiser. The motion was approved with no discussion.

— Bennett asked the council to consider naming Rineair interim city manager. The move received preliminary approval during a special called meeting earlier in the day.

Rineair will serve on a part-time basis at no cost to the city. She is a longtime associate of Bennett, who was named interim city manager following Hofman’s resignation.

Bennett, set to serve 90 days, has been charged with finding candidates for the council to consider for the city clerk and city manager job on a full-time basis.

— The council passed a proclamation honoring Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church’s 150th anniversary. It was presented to the Rev. Lon Harden and Lula Seabrooks.

— The council added Andy Harville and Tamela Mydell to the Planning and Zoning Committee. Harville and Mydell, nominated by Pelote, were unsuccessful city council candidates, losing to Pelote and Reiser, respectively.

— Tom Barnes was added to the Historical Preservation Committee.

— Harden was approved to continue his representative of Guyton on the Effingham County Industrial Development Authority.

— The council approved a proposal from Muni Code for the codification of city ordinances.

“It will be a long process,” Bennett said. “It will take nine to 12 months.”

Municode examines every Guyton ordinance and the city charter to make sure there are no conflicts in law. It will make them available to the public on the internet.

The cost is $8,500.

“I think it’s a deal at twice the price,” Deen said.

There is an annual subscription cost of $550.

— The council renewed dental, vision and life insurance for city employees with Anthem BCBS. The rates were the same as last year.

Bennett suggested that the council look at other options for next year.

— The council supported Bennett’s request to hire a qualified accounting professional.

“One of the biggest challenges I would say ahead of us catching up on some of the financial matters here in the city,” Bennett said. “Just to be honest, we are many, many months behind, in excess of a year of (bank) statement reconciliation. That’s going to going to include reconciling those statements that always include additional work on determining what entries were missed or what transactions were missed.”

Bennett said he was capable of doing it but added, “It would probably consume every bit of my time for the next month.”

Reiser and Lee were charged with finding candidates for the job.

 — Habitat for Humanity’s request for subdivision of some of its property was approved.

— Reiser’s request to form a committee to analyze the status of the wastewater treatment plant was OK’d. It will include Reiser, Johnson and a few citizens to be determined.

Near the end of the meeting, the council discussed boosting the number of community activities, the process for amending the city charter, the hiring process for the city manager and the implementation of tablets by council members. It took no action on these matters.

Lee brought up the city charter subject months ago. He has voiced opposition to the power the mayor has in hiring department heads.

Bennett has notified state officials of Guyton’s interest in changing its charter. Alterations must be OK’d be the General Assembly. He said minor revisions could be completed this year but a complete overhaul is preferable and would take longer.

Deen said workshops will be required to hammer out the details.