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Mayor, shelter officials talk image, future
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Supporters of the local homeless shelter met with Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston Wednesday afternoon at city hall to hash out disagreements over the vision for and operation of the shelter, including the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of the current board of directors.

The audio from the entire one hour and 20 minute meeting can be listened to above.
Here is the list of speakers and the time markers during which they spoke:
- The Rev. Sam Perryman, shelter board member - beginning to 17:21
- Former Covington mayor Sam Ramsey, shelter board member - 17:24 to 30:18
- Current Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston, has raised money on behalf of shelter and tried to help rebrand the shelter - 30: 19 to 49:17
- The Rev. Willie James Smith, head of the Newton County Ministers Union - 49:18 to 53:55
- Perryman - 53:57 to 1:01:18
- Johnston - 1:01:19 to 1:02:27
- Various speakers - 1:02:28 to 1:05:08
- The Rev. Clara Lett, executive director of the homeless shelter - 1:05:09 to the end

In an hour-and-20-minute meeting with Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston, supporters of the local homeless shelter gave Executive Director the Rev. Clara Lett a vote of confidence and said the shelter was run appropriately, but they did admit that the board of directors needed to improve its performance.

The meeting was called by Lett to address what she perceived to be harmful and disruptive comments about the shelter made by Johnston, who has made helping the shelter raise money and potentially restructuring its operations one of his personal goals over the past three months ever since it went past due on utility payments to the city and was on the verge of having its power cut off.

By the end of the meeting, a variety of people had made their feelings known and addressed what they would do going forward, and the consensus seemed to be that the shelter's current management and board would be the one to work on any issues, at least for now, not those from outside the organization.

Shelter board member the Rev. Sam Perryman, acting as spokesperson for the shelter, initially took issue with the board being called inept because of its inability to have a quorum on a regular basis, but by the end of the meeting he agreed that the board would work to be better.

"You (referring to Johnston) told us some of the things that are frustrating you about the Garden of Gethsemane and its structure, we'll work on the board," Perryman said. "We'll do that, and let us invite you back."

Mayor Johnston has previously called for a financial audit to make the shelter's operations more transparent and increase the public's confidence in donating to the shelter, but Perryman said the board had the utmost confidence in Lett's management and he noted that the shelter only had to report finances to state and federal agencies, not to Covington or the mayor.

Perryman thanked Johnston for his input but said the board has never been dysfunctional and that several members, including himself, can't attend many meetings because they travel frequently for business. However, he said he and board have always reviewed financial transactions and never found any fault there.

Perryman and the Rev. Willie James Smith, head of the Newton County Minister's Union, both told Johnston that he needed to apologize to Lett for the aspersions he's cast on the organization.

During his part, Johnston said he did not intend for his comments to come across as critical of Lett, but rather of the board and the fact there was no action by the board when it was past the verge of being shut down.

Johnston got involved originally because former Covington mayor Sam Ramsey, one of the shelter's staunchest supporter and the one who helped bring the shelter to Covington's city limits, asked Johnston to help the shelter which didn't have enough money to operate.

From Johnston's perspective, being past due on the utility bill was a crisis, yet no one was treating it as such, which was frustrating. He helped raise more than $16,000 by personally pleading for donations in October.

In attending board meetings after that, most of which didn't have a quorum, Johnston grew frustrated with what he saw as a continued lack of action and direction.

Ramsey also spoke Wednesday and said he agreed with many of Johnston's concerns and said the shelter's board did need to establish public confidence. At one point, Johnston and county Commissioner Lanier Sims had proposed and offered to help with a full rebranding of the shelter's image in the hope that would lead to more community support and donations.

He said he believes if the shelter is run right it can get enough money in donations and grants to pay a full-time executive director in addition to a grant writer.

However, Rev. Smith said donations have stopped coming in because of the mayor's critical comments, and Lett said volunteers have stopped coming as well.

Lett also said she felt Johnston should have talked to her more, but Johnston said he felt he had reached out to her.

Lett said that the perception of a negative cloud hanging around the shelter was unfair, because much of its back-owed rent and utility payments were the result of poor communication and issues reaching a formal agreement with the Covington Housing Authority, which owns the three buildings that comprise the shelter.

She also pointed to an investigation conducted by the Georgia Secretary of State's Office which did not find any evidence during its investigation of misappropriation of money food or clothing.

However, she also said she offered forgiveness and said healing was needed on all sides.

For his part, Johnston said he applauded the board for its willingness to examine itself, though it's unclear how involved he will be moving forward.

The shelter is in little danger of having its utilities cut off this month as it only has a utility bill of $375.27. That's because $11,270 was paid to the city in November, resulting in an over-payment of $2,430.74, which was applied to December, according to Covington Finance Director Leigh Anne Knight.

In addition, the city recently agreed to help out by reducing the number of electricity meters in the buildings, which used to be multiple units, from 11 down to three, which will reduce the amount of money that has to be spent on base rate payments.

Utility Director said the city would spend between $1,000-$1,400 on materials to make the changes; the work will be done by an electrical contractor who wants to help the shelter. Meecham estimates the changes would save the shelter about $1,000 annually.

However, Ramsey today put out a call for more donations, as January and February are typically the year's coldest months and highest utility bills.