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City Council plans annual March retreat
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The Covington City Council voted to have its annual retreat at Brasstown Valley Resort and Spa in Young Harris on March 18-20.

The annual retreat is a fairly new tradition and was started in 2007 when the city started trying its strategic planning initiative.

Ronnie Cowan, the city’s director of administrative services, said this year’s retreat will provide a chance for council members to get to know Councilman-elect Chris Smith, work together as a team, better understand their role as elected officials and plan their goals for the upcoming 2010 fiscal year budget.

The council and mayor will spend the first day by themselves discussing their goals. On March 19 and 20, the city’s top managers, City Manager Steve Horton, Public Safety Division Director Stacey Cotton, Cowan and Public Services Division Director Bill Meecham will also attend the retreat. They will each meet separately with the council to go over the 2010 budget, goals and projects for their divisions.

Cowan said representatives from the Municipal Electric Cities of Georgia and the Municipal Gas Cities of Georgia may also attend.

The retreat has a point of contention among the council and public. Covington residents have expressed concern about the council spending city money to travel and lodge out of town. The council approved staying at Brasstown by a 4-2 vote with Councilmen Keith Dalton and John Howard opposing.

At Monday’s meeting, Cowan said he did not have a total cost for the trip, but the room rates at Brasstown hotel were $109 per night for the council. Normal rates are $150 per night. Cowan said the council members have discussed sharing a room, and the city’s four managers will also double up. He said each retreat attendee will receive a daily stipend for food. If the members stay two people to a room, the cost of lodging would be $1,744.

Cowan said the city will either use city vehicles or rent two vehicles for the trip. The council and mayor will likely travel together in a van, and the managers will also travel together.

Dalton voted against holding the retreat at Brasstown, because he believed the council should save money by going to a local location.

"It’s the same song I’ve been singing for the last year, with the current economic times I don’t see the need to be going out of town and paying for a hotel, when we could stay at the FFA Camp or Charlie Elliott or somewhere local," Dalton said. "A retreat is a great idea and a great opportunity to come up with plans and goals and discuss the big upcoming projects in particular. But you can do that without going out of town."

However, other council members disagreed and said the retreat needed to be an actual retreat, meaning it took place outside of the county. Cowan said the benefit of an out-of-town retreat is that the council members spend more time together and are more focused on the work at hand because they are separated from their daily lives.

He said they also need to learn how to manage a $135 million budget.

"They can get their feelings on the table and be more open and honest when they’re by themselves," he said. "They also need time to be able to administer a sizeable amount of money, and it takes time to grasp that role."

The recommendation to stay at Brasstown was made by a committee of council members chosen by Mayor Kim Carter. Councilwomen Ocie Franklin and Janet Goodman and Councilman Mike Whatley were on the committee. The other out-of-town option was Unicoi State Park and Lodge, also in the North Georgia mountains. The cost for room at Unicoi was $75 per night, but committee members preferred Brasstown because the facilities were nicer.

In 2008 the retreat was held locally at the FFA-FCCLA Center, and in 2007 the retreat was held at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain.

The biggest expense is for the actual training and facilitating services that will be provided by the Centre for Strategic Training, out of Conyers. The city will pay the group $5,000. The city has worked with Co-Founder Frank Foster in the past regarding strategic planning.

In related news, beginning in January, other city managers will also undergo strategic training.