The city dropped a bombshell on the Dunwoody Homeowners Association last week, demanding members either resign from the DHA or resign from city boards they currently serve on.
City officials emailed out a five-page memo on June 17 explaining the city had adopted a new policy that forbids DHA members from serving on certain city boards or commissions due to the potential of a conflict of interest – and to also stave off potential threats of a lawsuits, according to a city official who asked not to be identified.
Top city officials remained tightlipped in the days following the move. Repeated calls and emails to Mayor Denis Shortal went unanswered. Shortal was reached by phone June 21 and promised to release a statement the morning of June 22, but did not do so.
Calls and emails to City Manager Eric Linton and City Attorney Cecil McClendon for comment were also not returned.
A city official said the mandate affects 24 members of the Planning Commission, Zoning Board of Appeals, the Construction Board of Adjustment and Appeals and the Design Review Advisory Committee.
On June 23, Dunwoody activist and blogger Bob Lundsten posted to social media the cover of the memo apparently outlining the new policy:
Dear Planning Commission, ZBA, DRAC and Construction Board of Adjustment and Appeals members,
Attached please find a memorandum on Board conduct that discusses the role of the members of the Boards, potential conflict of interest, both personal and organizational, and procedural conduct. Please review. Please be aware this is Attorney Client privileged information and may not be shared or discussed with anybody outside the persons addressed in this e-mail and members of the City Council. Violation of this privilege may be an Ethics violation under the City Code and, potentially a violation of the City Charger and state laws.
Also, this memorandum concerns the involvement of Board members with the Dunwoody Homeowners Association. The Mayor and City Council have determined it would be a conflict for the members of these Boards to be also members of the DHA. As a result, the Mayor asks those of you who are also members of the DHA that you make a choice as to whether which membership you will maintain – you can either resign from the DHA or from the Board on which you’re on with the City. Please communicate your decision in writing, via e-mail or otherwise, to the Mayor and Sharon Lowery [city clerk] as soon as possible.
As of June 22, only one DHA member has resigned a city post. Gerri Penn decided to step down from the ZBA, said city spokesperson Bob Mullen.
Mullen said he had no other information about the city’s new policy. Penn made the decision to resign after receiving a phone call from Shortal and before the email was sent out, according to the city official.
DHA President Robert Wittenstein said in an interview he was warned by McClendon of the email on June 16, and that McClendon suggested he meet with the mayor and city manager.
Wittenstein, who met with Shortal and City Manager Eric Linton on June 20 to discuss the situation, criticized city officials for making the decision in closed-door meetings.
They threatened DHA members with an ethics violation who spoke publicly about the mandate, Wittenstein said.
“Discussing and adopting this policy in secret and threatening board members with ethics violation charges if they disclose it is inexcusable,” Wittenstein said in a June 21 email to DHA members. The DHA says it has 1,000 members.
Wittenstein said in his meeting with Shortal and Linton that Shortal did most of the talking, explaining the city was taking this route based on legal advice.
“They explained their position and we talked about their rationale … which is to avoid the possible risk of a lawsuit,” Wittenstein said. “They want to reduce their vulnerability to a lawsuit.”
When Wittenstein asked for a copy of the policy, he was told it was not written down.
Wittenstein, a former City Council member himself, noted that votes cannot be made in executive session. “They essentially adopted an unwritten policy without a vote,” Wittenstein said.
The new policy also bans council members from attending DHA meetings, something many have done regularly since the founding of the city in 2006, Wittenstein said. City Council members attending DHA meetings have slacked off at recent meetings; at its June 6 meeting, Councilmember Terry Nall was the only one in attendance.
The reason to ban council members from DHA meetings, as explained by the mayor to Wittenstein, is that a council member may be unduly influenced by a community discussion on a project and that could in turn affect their vote. And if a developer is unhappy with a council vote, the developer may decide to take the city to court for that reason.
“This deeply concerns me,” Wittenstein said. “The idea a city councilmember shouldn’t be in a room with a developer explaining to community members what they have planned …. That’s helpful and informative. That sense the council has to be isolated – [the city] is completely misreading how the process ought to work.”
The DHA was heavily involved in the recently proposed Crown Towers mixed-use development. DHA members met with developers several times and agreed to support the project in exchange for such promises as payment of a $760,000 “voluntary impact fee” to be used toward park space in the Perimeter. There was also a great deal of back-and-forth on what percentage of the residential units should be owner-occupied as opposed to rental.
On May 23, the developers pulled back the rezoning request for the project planned for the former Gold Kist site near I-285. They said they did so because they were unsure if City Council would vote to approve their rezoning request.
“My guess is they were disturbed by our role in Crown Towers and feel we crossed some line,” Wittenstein said. “But what line that was, I don’t know.”
Wittenstein said the idea of a discussion of whether or not DHA members should be appointed to city posts is one worth having – but in public. “That’s a healthy discussion to have,” he said.
And the discussion has been had in the past with DHA members serving on city boards or commission agreeing to recuse themselves from any vote that could be perceived as a conflict of interest, Wittenstein said.
Wittenstein said DHA members will discuss the topic at the group’s July 10 meeting. Shortal and Linton have been invited to attend the meeting.