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Councilmember accused of launching ‘witch hunt’ against Stone Mountain DDA

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Councilmember accused of launching ‘witch hunt’ against Stone Mountain DDA

Gil Freeman

Stone Mountain, GA – In a special called meeting on Friday, Nov. 3, the Stone Mountain City Council met and approved Councilmember Gil Freeman’s open records request for the Downtown Development Authority. 

It was brought before the city council because the extent of the request will require a significant investment of time from the city to respond. If this was submitted by Councilman Freeman as an individual citizen, rather than a council directive, he would have been charged for it given the scope of the requests made.  

Splitting along familiar lines, Councilmembers Chakira Johnson, Gina Stroud-Cox, and Teresa Crowe voted against it, and Councilmembers Gill Freeman, Shawnette Bryant, and Clint Monroe supported it. Mayor Beverly Jones cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of moving forward with the request.

Discussion of this item was heated and momentarily devolved into yelling between several members of the council. Throughout the discussion among the council, citizens loudly voiced their disapproval of the open records request. Some even stormed out.

The request, which can be viewed here, in practice was not limited to just the DDA’s records and called for documents from varying periods over the past three years. 

Here are some of the things Freeman is requesting:

– Any and all records indicating the recusal of any member, any seat holder, and/or any chairperson of the DDA, from discussions, petitions and/or voting for a proposal in which that member, or that member’s immediate family member, has or had a financial interest.

– Any and all documentary evidence containing information regarding any audits or expressions of concerns of an ethical nature, conducted by any City of Stone Mountain official, DeKalb County official, State of Georgia official, or any federal commission, as well as any “whistleblower” documents, which contain evidence of suspicion of ethics violations.

– Bank records for the DDA indicating all deposits and withdrawals since January of 2020.

– Each and every communication document reflecting communications between the City Manager, Darnetta Tyus, the Assistant City Manager/City Clerk, Shawn Edmonson, and any other person, representative, agent or attorney regarding the previous Georgia Open Records Request concerning the Historic Preservation Commission from September 21, 2023 through the date of this request.

Source: Records request filed by Stone Mountain City Councilmember Gill Freeman

This open records request was previously withdrawn by Councilmember Freeman after extensive discussion at the last Oct. 17 meeting. At this meeting, he also mentioned that Stone Mountain City should join the DeKalb Land Bank, a semi-governmental organization that holds, then facilitates the turn-over of abandoned properties to community or commercial use.

However, Councilmember Freeman received criticism that these requests made were too broad and would be a substantial addition to city staff’s already full plate, with the coming election, 2024 budget deadline, as well as the upcoming audit.

Freeman’s conduct of late has frustrated other members of the city council and government. He hasn’t provided specifics on what he is looking for or what he thinks might be happening in the city. 

When asked by Councilmember Gina-Stroud Cox, for the second time in two weeks, what exactly it was he was looking for, he responded the same way he had previously, admitting that he didn’t specifically know what it was. 

The normally subdued Councilmember Johnson chastised Freeman for his insistence that this request was being made “on behalf of the council.” She said that the request considered on Friday was not paired down, as was the expressed will of council at the last meeting. 

Johnson said, “I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard you say the word ‘I’… Only Councilmember Freeman knows what he might be looking for.” 

“You have the right to make this request…but putting together the amount of information you are asking for is expensive,” Johnson said. “If Joe Smith was to make this request, he would have to pay for it. You’re sitting here trying to tell me that you’re asking for this information on my behalf, when I have no idea what frivolous witch hunt you’re entering into.” 

This is the second Open Records request filed by Gil Freeman in recent months, the first being an open record request for the Historical Preservation Committee filed on Sept. 21. 

At the time of writing, Councilmember Freeman has not shared with Decaturish the results of this open records request. 

However, prior to submitting the request, as well as multiple times since doing so, Councilmember Freeman said HPC has been acting without approval from council, specifically mentioning actions involving the historic Shermantown neighborhood.

What he has been referring to began on March 29, 2023, when the Historical Preservation Committee created a three-person subcommittee to review citizen complaints on historic properties that are falling into disrepair. The committee would then submit these complaints to the wider committee for consideration.

On May 12. 2023, the subcommittee presented 10 properties they would recommend sending a  “Notice of failure to maintain a historic property” to. Nine of these properties were owned by one person, former 20-year Stone Mountain City Councilmember Robert Smith, and passed to his children upon his death in 2018. Several do not count as having buildings on them, and both of Smith’s children, according to the DeKalb County Tax Assessor’s website, live in properties other than the ones listed. The list of properties can be found here.  

According to city code, the “Notice of failure to maintain a historic property” has to be sent twice per property, over a period of 51 days at minimum. After this, the most that can happen is the property is designated as in violation of code, which prompts an investigation from code enforcement.

There is no record of a second letter being sent for any of the aforementioned properties. 

All of this information was publicly accessible when the first open records request was filed, most of it coming directly from the HPC’s published minutes on the city website. 

Yet, Councilmember Freeman filed a request that, according to him, took 220 hours to fulfill, time that City Manager Darnetta Tyus repeatedly insisted the city doesn’t have. 

Both requests have now been taken not as a citizen’s open records request, but as a directive from council meaning they must be prioritized, and any costs for doing so are borne by the city. 

Questions were asked to Councilmember Freeman about what the urgency of this matter was, which he failed to answer. 

In other news:

The city rejected the reallocation of $800 for the Veterans Brunch set to take place Saturday Nov. 4. This was not a budgeted item, so the funds needed to be taken from elsewhere in the city’s budget. Multiple councilmembers and citizens raised concerns about the last minute nature of the way this request was made. Councilmember Freeman characterized the dissent as being a personal attack against the mayor.  

City Manager Tyus responded that, “This was never about the money, this about the appropriate process that the council needs to follow. I can’t let you frame the concerns I and others have voiced as this being about $5 versus $10.” 

Councilmember Gina Stroud Cox said to the mayor, echoing City Manager Tyus’ concerns, “You would have had our support, but we just didn’t know.”

The mayor said she didn’t take it personally and acknowledged the process could have been handled better. 

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