After a heated discussion that included talk of possible litigation, the Flowery Branch City Council voted 3-2 Thursday night to allow residents to qualify Nov. 2-4 for a March 6 special election to fill a council seat.
Council members Chris Fetterman and Amanda Swafford, who are up for re-election to their respective seats Nov. 8, opposed the move, while council members Joe Anglin, Tara Richards and Mayor Mike Miller supported it.
"You are depriving people of the ability to run for election and the people to choose the people they want to sit on this council," Fetterman said.
"If this ordinance does pass, I am contemplating ... filing a lawsuit against the city to put an injunction on this to make sure we have a legal opinion from a judge," he said.
"I really don't care if I lose the election ¬- that's the people's choice. But we have people who are specifically doing this ... because they've gotten mad at some people on this council."
Fetterman faces former City Councilwoman Mary Jones and Swafford's opponent is Damon Gibbs, Hall County Schools' special purpose local option sales tax coordinator.
The special election is to fill the seat vacated by Kris Yardley, who resigned to run for the state House District 25 seat once held by longtime state Rep. James Mills.
"I'm definitely concerned with equal protection, about my rights as a citizen who lives in this
community and would like to participate on the council as much as possible," Swafford said.
"But my major concern comes with the electorate -- the citizen voters," she added.
"We've got 6,000 people in our city that are being denied the chance to go to the ballot box and punish people their own way if they so desire based on decisions made on the council or the decision ... to run for other offices."
Anglin said he had no personal issues with any of the candidates running.
"A lot of times we talk about how government should run similar to business," he said. "I can't think of one business out there that would allow for somebody to go test waters and then come right back in and hold their position open.
"I think a decision where you ... put (qualifying) after an election could lend itself to political favor," Anglin said.
He added that he didn't think the council was limited anyone from running.
"If you want to run for this post, every person in Flowery Branch ... can run. They (may) have to concede the post or potential office they would receive, but they have an opportunity to run."
Richards said she doesn't believe "you get a second chance sweepstakes to run again if you don't get it the first time."
"While I'm not sure there's a civil right to run for office, I'm pretty sure there's not one to run back-to-back twice in a row for an office you didn't get the first time."
There is no prohibition, however, against candidates running in back-to-back races with one involving a former office, according to the Georgia Secretary of State's Office.
As in Yardley's case, "If qualifying is after the election and run-off dates, he could qualify to run for the seat if he loses his bid for the State House," said Sheridan Watson, Secretary of State spokeswoman.
If none of the seven candidates in the District 25 race win outright, a runoff would be held Dec. 6.
The other candidates are Republicans Bobby Banks, Emory Dunahoo, Dominic Ottaviano, Todd Reed, William "Sonny" Sykes and Democrat Paul Godfrey. Yardley is a Republican.
Yardley, asked Thursday if he has considered the option of running for his old council seat should he lose his state House bid, said, "I'm not focused on that at all."
He added that he had "no designs or is trying to influence" council on when to set qualifying.
Richards said after Thursday's council meeting that Yardley could have resigned in time for the special election to take place Nov. 8.
"He waited to resign, which implies he did it so he could leave his seat open to run again," she said.
Yardley, speaking by phone late Thursday, said that before he resigned Oct. 4 he got an assurance from city officials, including attorney Ron Bennett, that the special election could be held on Nov. 8.
But the decision was made to hold the special election later because that vote couldn't take place at the same location as the already scheduled City Council votes and a referendum concerning Sunday alcohol sales.
"We would have to have a separate building, staff and machines, at a greater cost to the city," Yardley said.
In the public comments part of Thursday night's meeting, the council heard from Hall County Commissioner Craig Lutz on the election issue.
Lutz, a Flowery Branch councilman before his current post, asked council members to move the qualifying dates to after the election.
"It's important for us to set the date where the most people can participate," he said. "I feel like (Nov. 2-4) is being set to specifically exclude a group of people. My concern with that is that shouldn't be the council's position.
"The council shouldn't be about trying to keep people from running. The council should be about trying to make sure that the most people can run."
The council's discussion of the issue got personal, particularly in comments from Fetterman and Miller.
Fetterman said he didn't hold any grudges against council members after disagreements on issues.
"But we're at the point now where we're looking like fools and it's all because everybody gets mad at each other over stuff and this is not right for Flowery Branch," he said.
Miller, restating a point made by Anglin, said, "Everyone has a right to run in this election, so ... it's a lie to say people are limited and can't run for this office.
"My final thing is that if Mr. Fetterman wants to talk about this council looking like fools, I would ask him to look in the mirror first."