City council explains silence on KKK banner
Facing scrutiny from meeting-goers, Dahlonega city councilman Roman Gaddis addressed concerns over the city’s perceived lukewarm response to a building owners’s recent plot to bring a pro-KKK sign to the Public Square during a regularly scheduled meeting at City Hall on Monday, March 6.
Last month all council members, except for Mitch Ridley, declined to comment after Roberta Green-Garrett reportedly hung a banner from the old Piazza building as a protest of a city zoning process that is slowing her plans to build a downtown hotel.
Local resident Judy Kreps wasn’t happy about it.
“I don't think it is a stretch for our city officials to denounce hate groups and white supremacists,” Kreps said from the podium. “When you don't denounce these actions, it is tantamount to an endorsement of these groups and their philosophies. We all deserve better, you deserve better and Dahlonega deserves better."
Gaddis waited until the end of the meeting to answer Kreps’ criticism.
“I know a lot of people wanted the city to make a statement,” he said. “But, what we have to do is we have to be in a position to vote on the matter if it comes to us. If we say something publicly then we may not be able to vote on it and would have to recuse ourselves.”
When contacted by The Nugget, Georgia Press Association general counsel David E. Hudson, said Gaddis’s reasoning may not hold legal muster.
"The notion that a city council member should not express his or her opinion about matters in the community is utter nonsense," said Hudson. "Political representatives at the local, state and national level are expected to express their views on issues of importance to that branch of government."
In response, City Attorney Doug Parks said that the council can serve in a quasi-judicial role if called upon to approve or deny a decision by the Historic Preservation Commission. Gaddis later said this was what he was referring to when addressing the issue during the meeting.
“The council is faced with a duel role,” said Parks. “It’s a very tough position they’re in.”
SEEKING A STRONG RESPONSE
Local resident Marisa Pyle was also at the meeting and agreed that the city could have done more.
“[It] was not enough to denounce the actions of what is a white supremacist and violent group,” she said.
Pyle, acting as co-organizer of a group of progressive Lumpkin County citizens called Indivisible Lumpkin, circulated a petition for the mayor, the city council and the county commission to put out a statement condemning Green-Garrett's actions.
"The mayor, city council and county commission should put out a strong statement that unequivocally denounces the actions of Roberta Green-Garrett and the fact that a KKK sign was put up in our neighborhood," Pyle said.
Kreps applauded Pyle's comments before relating her own concerns as a member of Dahlonega's Jewish community over the city's official statement on the incident.
"When the city council and our elected officials do not come out and actively denounce these sorts of actions, we feel marginalized," said Kreps.
At the meeting’s close, Gaddis pointed to a release on the city’s website which declared that Garrett-Green’s actions were “not representative of our community as a whole, and recent episodes are not indicative of a change in our character or philosophy. Whatever the motives, we do not understand or support statements or actions suggestive of prejudice or fabrications of alternate history.”
He applauded City Manager Bill Schmid for the release.
“Just for a point of reference, I want to commend Bill and his staff for what they did in response to the sign,” he said.
He again added that the council’s hands were collectively tied when it came to comments.
“I understand the need for wanting to hear from your local officials, but sometimes we have to be silent so we can vote on the issue,” he said. “I can assure you the gentlemen I serve with have impeccable values and I am proud to serve with them."
In response to that direct quote, Hudson again disagreed.
"Legislative body members, such as a member of city council, are not held to the same standards of impartiality as judicial officers," he said. "That is because council members, like other legislators, have an entirely different function. They are expected to have opinions and to communicate with their constituents about them."
LONE COUNCIL COMMENT
Following the sign controversy, an email was sent to council from The Nugget requesting comments. Shortly after it was sent, council members were advised by city management not to reply.
Council member Mitch Ridley was the only representative to respond with an on-the-record comment.
“I find it a shortsighted approach to a workable solution,” he said. “I think it’s irresponsible of a business owner to damage the Dahlonega brand for their selfish gains. It is totally a lack of community spirit.”
Repeated calls to Green-Garrett to discuss the controversy have not been returned.