11Alive Investigates: East Point's Missing Council Members

EAST POINT, Ga. - There's a lot of work to be done in East Point.

The city has not yet adopted a budget and they're still working to fill an open city manager position. The meetings themselves have become somewhat of a spectacle, with the mayor almost routinely having members removed and others walking out, leaving the group without a quorum.

But residents have noticed something else when they attend council meetings: empty chairs.

"They just don't show up," said long-time East Point resident Jean Wilson. "Some don't even call and ask to be excused. It's terrible."

11Alive dug through hundreds of pages of East Point city minutes and agendas from July 2012 through mid-August 2013. In that time, nine meetings had to be cancelled because not enough members showed up.

"The sad part is, you have citizens out there waiting to have a meeting," Wilson said.

Records showed the worst offender is two-term veteran councilman Lance Rhodes. According to minutes from the East Point city clerk's office, of the 72 meetings where attendance was taken, Rhodes was counted present for only 35 meetings - a 48% attendance rate.

11Alive caught up with Councilman Rhodes at a Saturday morning council meeting to ask about his absences.

"I have a principle disagreement with the abuse of special called meetings," Rhodes told 11Alive's Blayne Alexander. "The mayor and part of her voting block like to call meetings without the public's involvement."

Rhodes believes many of the city's special called meetings are set only to exclude the public and are called to frequently. That's why, he says, he refuses to participate.

"I will not support special called meetings," Rhodes said. "They can wait until the next regular meeting where citizens can participate."

Records show six of Rhodes' absences were for regular council meetings - still more than any other council member. Rhodes said one of those was for health reasons.

But he's not the only one leaving an empty chair. Minutes show over the same time period, Councilwoman Sharonda Hubbard has missed 17 meetings, Councilman Alexander Gothard has missed 13 and Councilwoman LaTonya Martin has missed 12.

The issue even drove one resident to sign up for the public comment during September's meeting, to confront members in person.

In a written statement to 11Alive, Hubbard also raised concerns about the number of special called meetings.

"Over the past 2 years, special called meetings have been abused and have nearly doubled the number of Charter mandated regularly scheduled meetings," Hubbard wrote. "Residents feel as if the excessive number of special called meetings is an attempt to limit transparency as well as limit their participation in their government."

Mayor Earnestine Pittman told 11Alive the called meetings are necessary for larger agenda items that require more discussion, but she says they're also necessary because members come to regular meetings unprepared.

"The business could be handled on the first and the third [of each month] if the members were to come," she said. "Come prepared. Read the agenda items, ready to discuss it."

There is nothing in the city charter requiring a council member to attend meetings, but theirs are paid positions. After factoring in salary, travel and health benefits, each member was allocated an average of $21,519 in fiscal year 2013.

James Honkisz is president of Fulton County Taxpayers Association. His organization keeps track of wasted tax money.

"Individual taxpayers certainly have a reason to be upset," he said. "It's almost as if he's taking money that is the taxpayers' money and simply misusing it."

Rhodes, Gothard and Hubbard all pointed out that when considering only regular meetings, their attendance rate is higher. Gothard added that at an average of more than one meeting per week, the number of called meetings seems excessive.

November is an election year in East Point; four of the city's council members, along with the mayor, are up for re-election.


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