At the end of the all-day retreat, Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston said it had been one of the most productive retreats he’d experienced since becoming mayor.
The city council gathered at Newton Career Academy in Covington to discuss communications, outreach to the community and upcoming projects (see box for a list of projects).
Contentious issues arose only twice: once when new council member Kenneth Morgan, Post 1 West, brought up the idea of creating a citizen review board for the police department, and once when Johnston returned to the subject of the $1 lease with Stephen Ratchford, which had been approved by the council at the Jan. 20 meeting.
Morgan and fellow council member Josh McKelvey, Post 3 East, said they had both run on the idea of creating a citizen’s review board for the police department.
“The Citizen’s Review Board would make sure those for maintaining the law are held accountable,” Morgan said.
He then shared his personal experience with what he considered a violation of his civil rights. “I wasn’t dealt with by the police department respectfully.”
Morgan explained that while still an employee with the city, he was stopped, ordered out of the van he was driving, thrown to the ground and handcuffed. When he was finally identified and released, he did not receive an apology from either the Covington Police Department or the city council. In fact, he said, one of the Covington officers told him “you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“It’s not the way things should be done,” he said.
When both Hawnethia Williams Post 2, West, and Ocie Franklin Post 3 West raised concerns about finding citizens who were able to render impartial decisions about police behavior, Morgan responded by saying, “It’s not about the law; it’s about impartial procedures.”
“We looked at the videos and the police did not do anything wrong,” said City Manager Leigh Anne Knight. She told Morgan that complaints can be filed with either the city’s human resources department or with the police department.
Later, when Chief Stacy Cotton was asked to address the procedures in places for complaints against police officers’ behavior, he explained that the Newton County Sheriff’s Office had issued a felony stop order for a van, driven by a black male, thought to be involved in an armed robbery.
A felony stop, Cotton said, required officers to take cover, and assume the suspects were armed and dangerous. Suspects would be removed from their vehicle, handcuffed and ordered to lie down on the ground.
Covington police were there as a backup to the sheriff’s department, and one of the city officers was repeatedly saying, “That’s Ken Morgan!”
Johnston asked if a citizen review board would address the problem. “The issue is not what happened, but what didn’t happen afterwards.”
He said people could bring this type of complaint to the city council, which, Johnston said, “I see as a citizen’s panel.”
McKelvey said he, too, had experienced police violation of his civil rights, though not in Newton County. He said he was handcuffed, thrown to the ground and beaten around the head before being taken to the precinct jail. There, the officers recognized they had made a mistake and released him.
The experience, he said, made him believe that there needed to be some type of review process put in place.
Cotton echoed the mayor’s question, asking, “What are we seeking to do? Without a complaint [being filed] an incident can’t be investigated. How do we get to the same ground?”
He revealed that a Chief’s Advisory Board had been put in place, which meets quarterly, and members, including Council Member Williams, reviewed incidents and police response. The board was put in place in the wake of the civil rights violations and subsequent rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities throughout the country.
“We’re living in a very volatile environment, now,” Williams said. Black and white relations have gone backwards.”
“This is a deep issue,” Johnston said. “It’s a conversation we need to continue. I’m not sure anyone on the council disagrees with the idea behind [the review board].”
Knight suggested that the council set up a work session to look at the issue, including building trust between the city, the police and the community, in depth.
McKelvey and Morgan were asked to take the lead in setting up town hall meetings with community members in the east and west wards. Council members agreed that the mayor and all council members should try to be at each other’s meetings to address concerns and answer questions from citizens.
The case for rebranding
Utilities Director Tim Morris and Public Relations Manager Trey Sanders walked the Covington City Council through the benefit of rebranding the city and its utilities company, making it more attractive to developers and attracting industry, retail business and manufacturing to the city. The utilities campaign would also extend beyond the city limits to attract customers unfamiliar with the Covington utilities service.
Branding is a marketing tool that can, when successful, create instant recognition of the organization’s identity and its goals.
Morris said that he believes that the residential utility rates currently being charged can be maintained until at least 2020, “based on what I’m seeing.” However, he said, it was important to increase the customer base.
Morris told the council that most companies looking for service or sites to build out did not give much consideration to city utility companies. Despite Covington’s reputation for reliability, it would lose potential customers to the bigger name utility providers, like Georgia Power.
He suggested the city council consider renaming and rebranding the utility service.
Council members Smith and Williams both expressed concern that renaming the service would be confusing to its current customers, many already confused by the services they were receiving. Covington provides utility service for gas, water, trash, recycling and electric, and those services are incorporated into one bill that customers often assume is only for electric and believe is “too high.”
The dollar lease question
Johnston asked if the council would revisit the $1 lease they approved between the city and Stephen Ratchford. (See story, “City approves $1 lease with former land owner” at http://www.covnews.com/section/1/article/200552/.)
Ratchford sold property on Williams Road to the city for future airport development in 2008 for $796,150, nearly $150,000 under its appraised value. Though never put in writing, the agreement was the city would lease the property back to Ratchford for $1.
Ratchford, who had been receiving $2,500 in rent from the Damascus Road Recovery Program (DRR) prior to the sale, leases the property to DRR. The latter is responsible for all repairs and upkeep on the property.
Johnston said he didn’t understand what the city wasn’t directly leasing to DRR, adding he thought the terms of the “gentleman’s agreement” between the city and Ratchford had been met, but “it’s done.”
City Attorney Frank Turner said, “Planning and zoning needs to make sure [DRR] is in compliance with city and state regulations” before it could move forward with leasing directly to the program.
City Attorney Ed Crudup said the city had 60 days to withdraw from the lease with Ratchford.
The attorneys were asked to check into ordinances and bring back a recommendation to the council within that 60 day grace period.
Knight told the council that last year the city paid $4 million for its employee health insurance premiums, Knight said, and filed just over $3 million in claims. She expects the premium to increase significantly when it comes time to renew.
Council members asked staff put out a Request for Bid (RFB) for cafeteria plans, which would allow employees to choose different levels of insurance based on perceived needs.