The City of Covington will not purchase the Norfolk Southern railroad, nor have anything to do with it. The council voted 5-1 to end any city involvement in the purchase of the railroad. Councilwoman Janet Goodman was the only member opposed.
The railroad discussion was not listed on the Monday night’s agenda but was added at the request of Councilman Keith Dalton. When the item came up for consideration at the end of the meeting, Dalton made a motion to end discussion of purchasing the railroad once and for all.
"My feeling is that I don’t want to pursue it with the current economic conditions, and things going on like we mentioned earlier with the school system and the county, and I’d like for us to back off and not be in the railroad purchasing business," Dalton said. Councilman Chris Smith seconded the motion.
"Even before we have the meeting to learn the facts?" Mayor Kim Carter asked. After Dalton responded yes, the mayor continued, "I’d ask that you keep an open mind to hear the facts … we had said at our retreat that we wanted to have this (meeting) … it’s kind of closed minded," she said.
Carter called for a vote and council members Dalton, Smith, Ocie Franklin, Mike Whatley and Hawnethia Williams all approved the motion.
"You guys got to be kidding me," the mayor said. "All opposed? (Goodman opposed) … I’m stunned. I am stunned. You wouldn’t even want to get the facts?"
"We’re done … We’re done with this discussion," said Smith, who previously said he had been frustrated when the mayor questioned the council after a vote was made.
Carter said she would still like to have an informational meeting, and she told Grant Writer Randy Conner that he could continue gathering facts, which he has been doing for the past four months."I’m not interested in doing that," Dalton said.
"Well, I’m interested in doing that," Carter responded. "There’s a lot of folks in the county interested in hearing that and there’s a lot of concerned citizens that are interested in hearing that."
The April 29 informational railroad meeting is still scheduled to be held at Covington City Hall at 5:30 p.m.
On Tuesday, Goodman said the motion by Dalton startled her and she had never heard of someone making a motion not to talk about something in her more than 30 years on the council.
"It’s the oddest thing I’ve ever seen procedure wise," she said. "I don’t know how you represent people when you do not allow people to listen to both sides of a coin; that’s closed minded."
Goodman said not one person has told her they are against the railroad purchase, but regardless, she said she felt the best course of action would have been to vote after gathering all of the facts at the April 29 informational meeting.
In an e-mail, Carter expressed disappointment with the vote, because it took place before the April 29 informational meeting and because she said the council members had asked for the meeting earlier in the month. Carter said she respects the service of the council members, but she disagreed with last night’s actions.
"We took an oath to serve all the people of Covington and to make the best, most informed decisions possible," Carter said. "To earn and keep the public's trust, our decisions should be based on a published agenda, public participation, and open discussion of facts and rationale. Last night was a significant step in the wrong direction in that regard."
Goodman will attend the meeting, as will Whatley, even thought he said he voted against the railroad because of financial concerns and negative feedback from constituents. Dalton and Smith said they will not be attending the meeting.
"We need to put this thing to bed, really, and make sure Mr. Conner directs his time toward other projects at this point for the city," Smith said. "We need to move on."
Dalton said Tuesday he asked for the agenda item to be added because with the recent school cuts, he didn’t want the city to waste any more time or money on investigating the railroad.
"Time and money are resources and both are precious right now. I thought we sent a clear message before that we didn’t even want to seek any grant money to pursue this," Dalton said. "Why should we keep spinning our wheels for something the majority of us don’t want?"
Franklin and Williams did not return phone messages Tuesday.
Covington and Newton County have been in discussions to purchase portions of the Norfolk Southern that runs through the county for the past couple of years, stemming from a civic center project, which was approved in the 2005 SPLOST.
The last publicly discussed price was $1.8 million for the 14.9-mile stretch of track that runs from Porterdale through Covington to Newborn. The county has a little more than $1 million in grants that could be used to buy the railroad.
The Newton County Board of Commissioners hasn’t yet voted on whether it wants to pursue the railroad purchase. Chairman Kathy Morgan has repeatedly said the BOC is continuing to gather facts and discuss the purchase with Norfolk Southern.