Dawsonville Mayor James Grogan was not in attendance at Monday's city council meeting when attorney Abbott Hayes presented findings that point to city code and charter violations by Grogan.
Hayes, a Gainesville attorney, was hired by the council to investigate wrongdoing by the mayor.
In the report Hayes delivered to the city council, Grogan was found to have made seven decisions that Hayes and the council agree are grounds for Grogan to be removed from office.
All of the offenses were found by Hayes to be in violation of Section 5.15 of the city charter, which provides that the mayor "shall be subject to removal from office for any one or more of the following causes: (1) Incompetence, misfeasance, or malfeasance in office; (5) Abandonment of office or neglect to perform the duties thereof; or (6) Failure to for any other cause perform the duties of office as required by this Charter or by law."
The first item Hayes discussed was the mayor's "unilateral decision" to reduce rezoning fees for five property owners who applied to annex five parcels of land into the city.
In September of 2013, an application for rezoning and annexation for two parcels of property owned by Karen McCord and Curtis Anderson was approved by the council. Both parcels were rezoned R-1, which the city rezoning fee schedule states should cost $250 per parcel.
Hayes wrote in his report that the applicants were charged $200 each, and documents and interviews with city staff show that the reduced fees were "approved by Mayor Grogan without approval of the city council."
Hayes also wrote that when he interviewed Grogan on April 26, 2017, he stated he had no recollection of reducing the fees.
Hayes also reported three annexations for Gold Creek residences owned by Jon and Susan Steiner, Kenneth and Barbara Vermillion and David and Beverly James. The properties were all rezoned to R-2 by a vote from city council on Jan. 5, 2015.
Each were supposed to pay a separate $250 fee, but instead the Steiners were charged $83.34, and the Vermillions and James were charged $83.33.
It was also determined, according to Hayes, that those reduced fees were authorized by Grogan without approval by the council.
"Somehow there was a miscommunication on somebody's part," Grogan said Tuesday. "It should have been $250 each."
Grogan said that because the city had no annexation fee, he had no way of knowing what to charge.
Grogan also said that the city has been trying to annex Gold Creek into the city for the past five years, but that the council has been unable to make a decision as to the best method for doing that.
Another decision that Hayes said is in violation of the city code and charter began in April 2015, when Rep. Kevin Tanner, on behalf of Tanco Investments, LLC, applied to the city for water and sewer services for a property at 67 Howard Ave. in Dawsonville.
The property, formerly a barbershop, was to be used as a commercial property.
After Tanner mentioned to several city employees and council members about the high rate being charged, Betty McGee, a former city employee in the utilities department, was told by Grogan to mark the Tanco application "residential."
"Since May 2015, Tanco has paid residential rates," the report reads. "In an interview with [Grogan]...he stated that he believed the property utilized by Tanco was not being used as a commercial business, so the residential rate was ‘more appropriate.'"
Tanner said Tuesday that as a property owner he felt he had a right to complain about the rate, which he felt was extraordinarily high for the one bathroom, 448 square foot building.
"When I became an elected official I didn't lose my right to complain," Tanner said, stating that he was told to direct his complaints to the mayor.
Tanner said the rate he has been paying is about $40 cheaper than the commercial rate that he complained about.
Tanner said that he also suggested at that time that the city consider a graduating scale for vacant buildings in the city, because the commercial rate could discourage small business owners from locating into the city.
Tanner said that he couldn't speak to the internal policy of the city that allowed for a lower rate to be charged, but stood by his right as a citizen and business owner to complain about something he thought wasn't right.
City Councilman Jason Power agreed.
"The people that live and work in the city have a right to ask anything of their government. We are here to serve them," Power said. "Things were handled inappropriately."
Grogan said Tuesday he doesn't feel that his decision overstepped his authority at the time.
"At the time this was done...I was the chief executive officer for the city of Dawsonville," Grogan said. "I ran the day to day operations, and I made decisions. On this particular one, [Tanner] was not using it for any kind of commercial building and wasn't in there that often. So I made that decision. I feel like being the CEO at that particular time, I had the right to make that decision."
Grogan's previous charitable donations on behalf of the city were also reported as a reason for him to be removed.
City Clerk Bonnie Warne reportedly told Hayes that Grogan's charitable donations, which until mid-2015 were part of the city budget, increased beyond what was typical of former Mayor Joe Lane Cox, and that "he approved payment to nonprofit organizations for golf tournaments in which [Grogan] participated as player."
City Attorney Dana Miles advised the council to cease making charitable donations after an invoice for such a golf tournament was presented to Grogan in 2015.
Grogan said he was just following Cox's practice.
"I just followed suit," Grogan said. "I was a new person on board and I tried to follow what was set. I did more in charitable donations than Joe Lane did, but I was out there more. I got out into the community."
Grogan said this accusation in particular is "reaching."
"Again, I had the authority to make decisions that benefited this city," he said.
Credit card usage
Another issue that Hayes brought up was Grogan's usage of a city-issued credit card. Prior to 2015, elected officials were given cards to use for food while traveling on city business. The city also paid for mileage and reimbursed lodging.
Hayes claims that between 2011 and 2015, Grogan used the card to purchase alcohol and gas while traveling on city business.
The alcohol and gas charges were later deducted from Grogan's mileage checks.
Though city funds were not used to pay for the alcohol and gas, Hayes argues the city "fronted" Grogan the money for the purchases, an action unauthorized by city council.
The report states that Grogan said in an interview that he "probably should not have used the card for alcohol and gas, but that he knew the charges would be taken off his mileage checks."
Hayes also argued that on Nov. 20, 2014, Grogan instructed Sara Beacham, a city employee, to travel to City Liquor of Dawsonville and use a city credit card to purchase four bottles of alcohol for the mayor to use for door prizes at a dinner for the Georgia Mountain Regional Commission.
Grogan said Tuesday that he did ask Beacham to purchase the alcohol, which he said consisted of four bottles of moonshine that were taken to the dinner as a way to market the city.
"There would be a hundred bottles of wine from cities with wineries there," Grogan said. "I didn't see that there was anything wrong at all with what I did."
The council took steps to prevent the purchase of alcohol with city cards in August of 2015, when it voted to move away from the municipality-issued credit cards and to a spending reimbursement system.
At the time, City Councilwoman Angie Smith was quoted as saying she believed the financial policy updates were needed to take the guesswork out of the process, as she felt there were "things that were turned in that looked improper."
The new policy states that alcoholic beverages are not eligible for reimbursement.
Grogan said on Tuesday that because the policy was updated, the allegation is an old claim that had been dealt with previously.
"They're trying to dredge up something we've already addressed," he said.
Payment for meetings
Hayes also reported that the city charter allows the mayor to be paid, "in addition to monthly compensation of $2,000, $100 for each specially called city council meeting, work session or other meeting that has been pre-approved for compensation by the council that they attend other than the regular monthly city council meeting."
Hayes stated that in 2013 and 2014, Grogan submitted and approved payments of $100 each for meetings that were not pre-approved for compensation by the council.
Grogan said Tuesday he felt he needed to be compensated for meetings he attended as a member of the GMRC, despite previous decisions made by council that took the per-diem charge for those meetings.
The report does not mention the date or purpose of any specific meetings, a fact Grogan pointed out.
Hearing set for May 15
When Hayes finished his presentation, City Council Member Caleb Phillips asked City Attorney Dana Miles what the next step was in light of the findings.
"I think you've got a couple of choices under your charter" Miles said. "First, you can do nothing, or choose to do nothing. Second, you could begin the process for removal of the mayor from office. Under Section 5.16 of the charter, basically what would happen is that would require a vote from this body tonight to begin that process."
Miles further explained that the mayor would then be given written notice of the grounds for removal, which could be the written report by Hayes of exactly what is being claimed. A hearing date and time would have to be scheduled no less than 10 days from the time the mayor received the written notice.
"At that time, Mr. Hayes would present his findings like he has this evening, and the mayor would be entitled to present whatever he wanted in response to that," Miles said. "This council would then take a vote, and by a two-thirds or larger majority to remove him from office he is removed. Under the code, he has the right to appeal that decision to the Dawson County Superior Court."
Phillips made a motion to begin the removal of Grogan from office, with a hearing set for 3 p.m. May 15 at city hall.
Smith seconded the motion, and it was approved unanimously.
During the meeting, council member Mike Sosebee asked Miles if a decision could be delayed. Miles replied that he thought it would be best if a decision was made at that meeting.
Sosebee ended up voting with the rest of the council, and on Tuesday had no comment on his decision to vote with them despite obvious hesitancy.
Power said Tuesday that he is disappointed with the violations found during the investigation.
"I believe a vote is a profound gift of trust and that trust has been violated," he said.
Smith said that the council had been cautioned against making any comments by counsel because the situation is still active.
The council's vote to begin the process of removing him from office came as a shock, but also didn't, Grogan said.
"There's been a witch hunt going on for the past year and a half," he said. "There are a few council members that just want me out of here. I think it's a personal thing in truth."
Grogan said whatever happens, he will fight to keep his place as mayor and would challenge the decision in court.
"I'm going to seek legal counsel now. But I'm also going on. I'm mayor until somebody tells me I'm not mayor."