The meeting of Swainsboro’s city council and mayor on Monday night was a long one—but overall worth the wait as a bit of important action took place before the three-hour meeting adjourned. Melissa Kirby was effectively hired as the town’s city adminstrator.
Kirby was made interim city administrator following former administrator Al Lawon’s exiting the city. With the hiring Monday night shortly after 9 p.m., that “interim” title has been removed.
Kirby is the city’s first new administrator in more than 30 years. The job is contractual in nature and will need renewing each year.
Leading up to the hire Monday night, several members of council sang Kirby’s praises for jumping in immediately upon Lawson’s vacancy.
The vote to hire Kirby took place during during open session but required an hour-long executive session beforehand.
During that executive session, Mayor Greg Bennett and all six members of council discussed personnel. Upon returning to general session, Mayor Bennett requested action to decide between the three finalists (Kirby, out-of-towner Herman Middlebrooks, and a local by the name of Chu Lin Ooi).
Hearing this, councilperson Johnny Ray Stafford provided a motion to hire Kirby. Councilperson Julian Sconyers provided the second.
Councilperson John E. Parker then motioned to hire Middlebrooks, and Greg Quarterman seconded.
The mayor then asked for a vote for Kirby. The vote passed 4–2 with Stafford, Sconyers, council newcomer DJ Davis, and councilperson Bobbie Collins voting in favor while Parker and Quarterman voted against.
Mayor Bennett then called for a vote in regard to Parker’s motion to hire Middlebrooks. Only two yeas—one from Parker and another from Quarterman—were shown, thereby solidifying Kirby as Swainsboro’s new administrator.
She has been employed by the City of Swainsboro for the last two decades.
The Chronicle attempted to reach Kirby for comment about her hiring but as of Tuesday at press time, she could not be reached. Should she return the request, look for an update from this publication.
The meeting moved slowly preceding the closed session and little was accomplished on the whole.
The new adminstration seemed to have been moving forward in a positive way early on as a group; the January meeting was the most positive one the township’s leaders have experienced in months. However, as of late, the collective seems to have regressed as first evidenced by a contentious called meeting the third week of last month. Tension amongst mayor and council was evident during the latest meeting as well; several times throughout, mayor and council were at odds about many issues.
Nonetheless, small progress was made in various regards for the citizens of Swainsboro.
For starters, the group was able to agree on necessary equipment purchases. These financial authorizations did require, however, a lengthy evaluation of several different city accounts with funds available from which the purchases could be made.
All in all, Swainsboro will now have in its possession ready for use a new lawn mower as well as a new bushhog. Mayor and council also conceded to repair the town’s streetsweeper, two lift stations, and a backhoe as well. Accounts that will fund these purchases—a total price tag of approximately $50,800—include the SPLOST and General Fund accounts.
In addition, the group was able to come to an agreement on hiring two new firefighters. Both Matthew Headrick and Bobby Wilson, at the recommendation of Chief Mike Strobridge, will now join the ranks of Swainsboro Fire Department. The vote that ensued was 6–0.
Council also considered upping the greens fees at the golf course by $4 for out-of-county players. This would be a means to increase revenue for Swainsboro at no cost to the citizen. The eventual vote went 5–1 with Parker opposing.
Other approving action Monday night included:
• The purchase of two “slightly new” 2017 Dodge Chargers from McLaggan Communications and Radar Services in Hahira. The city received two bids with McLaggan submitted the best one: $6,761 per vehicle, including equipment. This vote was unanimous.
• The approval of leasing a city-owned building to Joseph Bynes, a veteran who is leading a pilot program for recycling in town. The lease, okayed at $1, will be drafted by the city’s new attorney, Jon Levis, and Bynes is expected to comply with certain contengencies in return. These include a recurring status report, the purchase of workman’s comp, and the submission of a business plan, among other like requests from Mayor Bennett and council.
• The approval of Levis to investigate Swainsboro’s current regulations as related to what is required financially of developers leading projects in the town. This discussion specifically pertained to business dating back to 2021 involving Mayor Bennett prior to his election.
Toward the end of the last calendar year, Bennett submitted to the mayor and council at the time his plans to bring a new subdivision to Swainsboro, and he sought the city’s financial assistance in bringing water and sewer to the location. The subdivision would repay for the water and sewer expansion in less than 10 years. At that time, he provided an estimate to the leaders, who voted to allow the undertaking to move forward.
Mayor Bennett abstained from the conversation Monday night due to a conflict of interest. He did, however, provide Kirby ahead of the meeting what would need to be considered by the council: an updated cost estimate for the expansion.
Sconyers, during this discussion, stated he helped lead a new subdivision in years prior and the developing group was responsible for those costs, not the city.
After a brief discussion, Davis motioned to have Levis look at the existing regulations and report back to council. Stafford seconded, and the vote passed 5–0. (Collins, as mayor pro tem was tasked with calling the vote and therefore could not cast her own.)
Council also opted by vote to nominate Cason DeVane to the Joint Development Authority. Sconyers and Stafford alike, during the discussion of this business item, attested to their personal belief that DeVane would make a great candidate for said board, and Mayor Bennett, when Parker posed a question about the process of selecting a nominee, explained chamber/JDA leader Ken Warnock (according to customary practice) requested DeVane’s represent the city on the board. The group ultimately passed DeVane’s nomination, but they also committed to discussing a potential second nominee for an upcoming vacancy on the same board. Parker went on record at this time, recommending Donald Jenkins for the opening.
The group also voted unanimously to approve a contract for the local airport. Funds would be generated through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), totaling $22,000 split between the County of Emanuel and the City of Swainsboro.
Levis addressed mayor and council ahead of the vote, urging them to take some form of action that would put the city in compliance with the guidance outlined as part of ARPA. To be specific, the city needed: a mask policy that would satisfy both the Centers for Disease Control as well as the Transportation Security Adminstration; to ensure all city employees who would have contact with state employees in dealings with the airport were educated on sexual harassment; and updated paperwork.
Hearing this, council voted to have all city employees and elected officials take a sexual harassment class, display a sign specifying the airport’s mask protocol, and take measures to meet the paperwork requirements. These three bits of action took place as one vote, and the vote to enter the ARPA contract followed.
Council also voted on a motion made by Davis to compensate the city hall employees who have helped fulfill the duties during the absence of an official city administrator. These funds would be made possible through a surplus left from Lawson’s salary. The vote was unanimous.
In other meeting news:
• Mayor and council discussed at length the 2022 CDBG application. According to Mayor Bennett, the city engineer had confirmed the Gumlog Gym project could, to some degree, essentially piggyback on the CDBG application as an extension of work on Robin Road. A definitive list outlining the projects to be accomplished with these dollars was not required of council Monday night; rather the group only had to commit to applying for the CDBG.
The mention of Robin Road would continue throughout the evening many times. Parker, Collins, and Quarterman—all at different times—questioned the status and/or location of dollars previously allocated to the repairs needed in the Robin Road area. Former councilperson Rita Faulkner also went before council and addressed the same concerns. Those four individuals also wanted to know why current funds couldn’t be used for the gym repairs and would instead, under the CDBG considerations, rely on that funding source.
Mayor Bennett responded in part by assuring the group that the gym could, in fact, qualify under the CDBG as described and to look forward, not backward, despite frustrations about the happenings of the past that essentially mistracked the Robin Road project.
A 4–2 vote to apply for CDBG followed the discussion. With that, the city’s engineer is expected to begin paperwork for the application soon.
Similar to the CDBG discussion, the group, with Parker at the helm, discussed needed road repairs. According to the Ward 5 representative as well as Collins, on behalf of Ward 4, certain areas had fallen victim to a “long line of neglect.” Kirby responded, specifying a number of roads scheduled to be addressed by the new LMIG. She further stated she would check with the Department of Transportation for the latest list and bring that back to council next month.
Parker also led a discussion about SPLOST funds designated for a hanger loan. In short, the previous city administrator erroneously funded a $328,000 payment through the General Fund as opposed to the SPLOST Fund. This has resulted in a surplus in the city’s SPLOST account as funds are non-transferable from one account to the next. Levis is expected to investigate the city’s options and return a recommendation to council by the end of the week.
Parker led a third discussion Monday night: the use of ARPA funds. He stressed a looming April deadline and expressed frustrations with the lack of attention given to the matter in the past. This point of the meeting was perhaps the most feverish as mayor and council bounced back and forth between the circumstances of the previous administration and the new group around the table. In conclusion, Mayor Bennett asked the group to commit to bringing fresh ideas to this body for consideration.
• Council voted to make an $18,000 payment to Brown & Rountree. This was a 3–3 vote originally with Mayor Bennett breaking the tie to authorize the payment.
• Council voted to pay an outstanding bill to Jacobs in relation to a pending lawsuit. This payment will be rendered at approximately $11,000.
• Collins went on record, recognizing two different state championship teams and requesting signage be erected in their honor.
• Parker went on record and requested the changing of Rentz Street’s name to honor the life and legacy of the late Shon Nobles.
• Davis went on record, requesting the city formally acknowledge the 200-year anniversary of Swainsboro’s founding (which occurred in 1822).