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September 2019
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Wake up, Nelson

Used to be when a crisis erupted in a village, someone rang a fire bell in the night to alert the populace and avert disaster. It's time someone did that at Nelson.

For about a year, the city’s planning and zoning commission, or part of it, has operated in a way you could call fast and loose. The planning commission is a five-member body appointed by the elected city council.

At the time some commission members began to go maverick, an atmosphere of animosity had squared the city council against the mayor. Fervor to strip Mayor David Leister of executive powers propelled the council in a moment of weakness to place expanded powers into the hands of the planning and zoning commission. It appeared to be done in the spirit of "The mayor don't like it––must be a swell idea."

Overnight the planning commission's job expanded from hearing zoning change requests to scoping the town for code violations by homeowners, along with about a dozen other responsibilities hardly appropriate for an appointed zoning board.

At the same time the commission’s mission expanded, it also received a new set of council-approved "operational guidelines." Among points of that incredible document is sanction for the planning commission to hold "informal" meetings, those not to include all planning commission members. By the guidelines, one or two members suffice for such "information gathering" confabs, some with city employees.

It seems most such "meetings" have been conducted by planning commission chairman, Lamar Kellett, and member, Mike Haviland, with the other commission members largely out of the loop.

A Nelson asset, Haviland’s experience as a professional in municipal government proved his worth during planning commission talks with Cherokee County for park improvement money (another expanded duty). Haviland's expertise showed as a feather in the planning commission cap.

But at what price such successes? Chairman Kellett seems to believe he best operates in secret, revealing his doings to the mayor and council only as he wants to.

This month the mayor confronted Kellett in a public meeting about seeking financial information from neighboring cities. Kellett denied the activity, though a letter from City of Jasper Finance Director Tacie Williams confirmed it took place.

In addition, it took the city attorney to convince Kellett the planning commission’s city-council-approved operational guidelines do not place the commission above information sharing stipulations of Georgia open records law.

The mayor and council members have asked Chairman Kellett to share information he controls, only to be denied. Does the chair not understand the only power he wields rightly, as an appointed official, he wields by the grace of the elected officials who appointed him, to whom he must rightly respond?

Leister sees Kellett attempting to operate a shadow government at Nelson, trying to conduct the work of government without council oversight or accountability to the public.

Leister asked the city council February 15 to remove Kellett and Haviland from the planning commission. The council responded with a delay, pushing the decision onto a citizen-based ethics committee, an as yet unformed body.

We would urge Nelsonians to do something better. Put forward candidates for that ethics committee and demand of your council that the committee be formed. Let your common wisdom end present craziness, and go forward in a way that makes sense to an involved majority of residents.

Open, representative government remains as fundamentally American as our founding documents. We remind Mr. Kellett and any allied with him that, good intentions notwithstanding, the end does not justify the means.

For all Nelson residents a duty remains to take part in their government and to demand accountability on behalf of the electorate, so that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from that struggling municipality astride the county line.