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Local leaders clash at Porterdale City Council
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At a meeting lasting until approximately 1 a.m. Thursday, the Porterdale City Council voted not to reappoint Shari Stevenson as city clerk and Patti Battle as Better Hometown director.

For almost three months, members of the Porterdale City Council have clashed over whether to reappoint Stevenson and Battle.

"Let tonight be the night when we just start all over again," Councilwoman Kay Piper asked her fellow council members in a statement read near the beginning of the meeting.

Councilwoman Piper excused herself because of the time and Councilwoman Arline Chapman abstained from the vote because as a new member she did not feel she had the necessary background information to vote.

City clerk

Councilman Robert Foxworth made a motion to defer the reappointment of the Stevenson as city clerk during the January meeting after he noticed a large amount of uncollected water bills had not been written off by the city since 1999. The total sum of the uncollected bills dating from 1999 to 2005 was $147,080.66, which was written off by the council at Wednesday night's meeting.

 "I made the motion to defer her reappointment until after our city accountant, Denny Philips, made a financial review," Foxworth said. "I wanted to discuss the matter in executive session because it was a personnel issue, but Councilwoman Piper and Mayor [Bobby] Hamby kept hammering me, and I'm not one to back into a corner and keep my tail between my legs - it's not going to happen."

He added he felt responsible to the residents of Porterdale to see their tax and utility money is used appropriately, and he would continue to ask tough questions and scrutinize the budget.

Kurt Leasure, Porterdale code enforcement officer, has filled in for Stevenson since the deferral of her appointment and was approved as interim city clerk until a suitable replacement can be hired.

"Kurt is the best," Foxworth said. "He is great at whatever he does."

Stevenson's niece, Maura Haines, read a statement on Stevenson's behalf at Wednesday's meeting. In the statement, Stevenson thanked Hamby, Piper, City Manager Tom Fox and City Attorney Tim Chambers for their support and professionalism.

"Mr. Foxworth, thank you for the emotional distress, the physical distress, the anxiety attacks and the sleepless nights I have endured for the past month," Haines read. "Your retaliation and personal vendetta toward me has worked."

Stevenson said Foxworth humiliated her publicly and made false accusations about her to the news media. She said she has worked to ensure her duties were performed with accuracy and legality.

"You are the most unethical person I have ever known," Haines read from the statement. "You are a major embarrassment to the city, and I feel sorry for the residents who will have to endure another four years of you supposedly representing them."

While Foxworth allowed Haines to read Stevenson's statement uninterrupted, Councilman Mike Harper asked whether the statement was being recorded and that if his name was slandered, Haines would hear from his lawyer.

"We have freedom of speech and we've got a great constitution," Foxworth said. "I welcome anybody to come down and speak their mind, but they better watch what they say."

In an earlier interview with Stevenson, she said Foxworth's behavior toward her changed after a city employee reported to her she had repeatedly been sexually harassed verbally by and asked to type personal letters for Foxworth

An article published in the News on April 27, 2005, reported the details of the behavior which reportedly occurred from Sept. 2004 to March 2005. The board voted unanimously to censure Foxworth and directed him to attend sensitivity training, which he did complete by the end of 2005.

"For three years I have been respectful toward Ms. Stevenson and everybody else," Foxworth said. "I move on."

Foxworth denied the matter was personal and said he, and a majority of the council, simply felt hiring another city clerk was in the best interest of Porterdale.

Better hometown director

At the December meeting, Foxworth made a motion to discuss the position of Better Hometown Director Patti Battle because she had spent city money to plan three events without coming to the board for approval.

"I was never given a budget or even a job description, so I don't think I have done anything wrong," Battle said.

Battle began working as the Better Hometown director in late spring of 2007 when the council approved the initiation of the program, which is regulated by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

At a January work session, board members contemplated saving money in a tight economy by completely cutting the program out of the budget.

John Boothby, a Porterdale resident and president of the Covington/Newton Chamber of Commerce, attended Wednesday's meeting as a representative of the tourism division of the chamber.

He said more than 20,000 out-of-town visitors attended various community events within the county in 2007.

"These people came into our community, spent money on food, tickets, hotel rooms and gift buying," Boothby said. "We didn't have to pay to educate their children and we collected revenues through sales taxes."

Boothby added Battle has worked with the Chamber's director of tourism to promote Porterdale.

"Your director sits on the tourism advisory council and is a very active and contributing member who has brought favorable attention to Porterdale and its efforts to promote your businesses here," Boothby said.

He also noted the Chamber paid for a Porterdale brochure to be printed and mailed to 47 regional visitor centers and all 11 state visitor centers.

Urging the city not to cut funding for the program, he alluded to Social Circle's increased commerce as a benefit brought by their Better Hometown program.

"The Covington/Newton Chamber of Commerce needs the Better Hometown program in Porterdale to be the vehicle that we work with to bring people here to spend money at Corkpoppers, Jimbo's, Baby Cakes and all other businesses that have put their money on the line in Porterdale," Boothby said.

Boothby concluded by saying eliminating the program and restarting later would be difficult because of the lost momentum and credibility and possible aversion of a qualified director to work for a city that disbanded the program after less than a year.

"It would be more than a shame - it would be a travesty to turn your back on your growing business community by terminating the Better Hometown program at this time," Boothby said. "My Chamber and the state of Georgia would quickly turn their time, money and attention to communities that are working harder to help themselves."

While the council decided to retain the Better Hometown program, they voted not to renew Battle's contract.

Councilwoman Chapman, after the vote from which she abstained, suggested a board of directors for the program be formed immediately to work toward hiring a replacement.

"I think the board should be made up of group of people drawn from Friends of Porterdale, our merchants, the [Porterdale] Woman's Club, someone from the mill and someone from the council - just key groups who are active in the community," Chapman said.

Battle filed a formal complaint with Porterdale's city manager against Foxworth and Councilwoman Linda Finger on Dec. 13. Battle said the two council members have made slanderous statements about her to city merchants and publicly discussed her personal business in an open city council meeting.

"All of the above actions have made my working environment a hostile working place, including the unprofessional way I have been treated in the last three city council meetings," Battle wrote.

The complaint requests an investigation into the council members' conduct.

Battle described the actions of the council as "unfortunate."

"Porterdale has progressed so much is the past few years," she said, "and it won't anymore if the council doesn't have progressive thinkers."