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Agreeable council may split vote on Main Street debate

Sylvania city council members get along very well.

So well, that out of 774 votes taken during the last four years, all but seven were unanimous. Another way of looking at it: council members disagreed less than one percent of the time.

In all seven of those instances, only one person voted differently from the rest. A study of minutes posted on the city’s Web site indicates that the issues were: what day to celebrate Halloween, when to hold a council meeting, an alcohol license, natural gas rebates, a water study, a $2,300 playground fence and an amendment to the city’s satellite receiving station ordinance.

So how will the vote go when the council takes up a controversial zoning request on S. Main Street this fall? If past performance is any indication, odds are that the vote will be unanimous.

Mayor Margaret Evans said she’s sure this issue will result in a split vote. She declined to say how she feels about the request to rezone houses at 305 and 307 S. Main St. from residential to professional so two lawyers can open an office in one of the houses. She said she doesn’t want to influence the votes of the other council members. She would only vote in the case of a tie.

Evans said the council didn’t always get along so well. She first joined the group in 1981 and became mayor in 1998. Years ago, meetings sometimes lasted four hours.

Lately, some of the meetings have been over in less than 20 minutes.

Under Evans’ leadership, the council uses an agenda and Robert’s Rules of Order. “We stick to the agenda,” she said. She said improved technology, including e-mail and the Internet, has given council members the ability and time to investigate issues and ask questions before the meetings begin.
“We have a great council,” she said. “They’re very informed and intelligent.”

She also said there haven’t been many controversial issues in recent years. That’s going to change soon. A public hearing on the zoning issue on S. Main Street is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Oct. 6 in the council chambers, right before the council’s regular meeting. The issue has inspired a number of letters to the editor and the city, as well as complaints from residents at the city’s plans and design commission.

The commission voted 3-0 recently to recommend that the city council approve the zoning request. The council must vote on the issue within its first three meetings after the Oct. 6 public hearing. Evans said she probably will give council members the opportunity to vote on the issue the same night the public hearing is held.

City Manager Carter Crawford said he believes “very strongly” that the zoning request should be denied. He said part of his job is to make recommendations and he recommends that the council leave the residential area residential, avoiding the kind of thing that happened to Zetterower Avenue in Statesboro, which is more professional than residential.

Crawford, who was city administrator of Statesboro from June 1990 through July 1998, told the city’s plans and design commission in a letter that he hopes homeowners who have “maintained and remodeled homes on S. Main Street will be able to enjoy their homes and neighborhood without any further encroachment of non-residential zoning.”

Carter said in 30 years of managing cities, including Sylvania, Statesboro, Millen and Cedartown, he’s never seen a government body agree as much as Sylvania does. “It’s sort of unusual,” he said. “I’ve never had anything like that anywhere else I’ve been.”

He, too, attributes many of the unanimous votes to a lack of controversial issues and to council members doing their homework before the meetings. “It’s not a rubber stamp or a sheep mentality,” he said. “We don’t have many controversial issues.”

“I guess this thing on S. Main Street has a lot more controversy than anything else in the last few years,” he said.

Running for re-election this fall are council members Preston Dees and Tripp Sheppard. They face challengers Connie Beasley, Herbert Hill and the Rev. Thomas Norman. A total of three seats are open on the council. Crawford said he thinks Sheppard may recuse himself on the zoning issue since he is related to one of the lawyers making the zoning request, Donald O. Sheppard III.

A local government having such a steady voting record is interesting to Nathan Grasse, assistant professor of political science at Georgia Southern.

 He said he isn’t familiar with the specific situation in Sylvania, but possible reasons why any governing body might have so many unanimous votes could include the council sharing a similar set of values, or formal meetings that discourage disagreement and cause members to want to avoid the appearance of being “troublemakers.”

He also said there might be something of a “group think” mentality, with the members starting to see problems in the same way with no kind of external criticism or way of looking at things.

Unanimous votes also could be caused partly by a bit of apathy among council members and/or the public. They also might be caused by the community being happy with the way things are going.  And there’s also the possibility that there may not be many controversial issues in Sylvania.

“I’m not in any way saying that there’s anything nefarious,” Grasse said. “I wish everywhere I worked, everyone could agree that much.”