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Flowery Branch council censures member over emails
Richards says she has made a mistake

Flowery Branch City Council voted Thursday night to censure Councilwoman Tara Richards for not fully complying with an open records request concerning a sewer-plant issue.

The council voted 4-0 on the matter.

Richards abstained from the vote, but conceded she had made a mistake.

Councilman Chris Fetterman initiated the move to censure Richards, saying that a "private citizen" had made the open records request for documents concerning the sewer plant and that Richards failed to include three emails, including one that questioned Hall County Commissioner Craig Lutz's ethics in the matter.

City Attorney Ron Bennett said the person making the open records request was Lutz, who was not at the meeting and who could not be reached for comment.

At issue was Hall County's request for qualifications in February to maintain its 750,000-gallon-per-day water treatment facility on Spout Springs Road, 13 pump stations and more than 2,000 customers and whether Flowery Branch would make a bid to run the facility.

A censure carries no punishment other than the public admonishment. However, further censures could result in the council taking steps to remove Richards from office, according to Bennett.

It comes "with a warning that (the improper activity) should cease ... and if it continues, then the member would be considered for removal from the organization," he said.

Three council members strongly condemned Richards for failing to disclose the emails.

"Tonight is a dark moment in Flowery Branch because one of our members of the government, an elected official, betrayed the people," Fetterman said. "This is a direct violation of the law ... and must be dealt with by this council with harsh actions."

Councilwoman Amanda Swafford said public officials, when faced with such a request, "don't have the option of deciding what we're going to produce and what we're not going to produce. If the request asks for it and it's a valid request, emails are applicable. We (must) have consequences to that action."

Councilman Kris Yardley added his condemnation. "It is clear we must comply with all the issues and be a transparent government. There really is no excuse beyond doing what the law allows. This is sad this has happened."

The emails in question were sent to The Times on April 4 and 5, They show forwarded email conversations between city officials on the sewer plant issue and an email on the matter from Lutz addressed to "residents of Flowery Branch."

In the letter to residents, Lutz says he has been "trying to get" Flowery Branch "to make a proposal on what they would charge to take over the operation" of the plant.

In one of the emails, Richards expressing her views on the matter.

"Craig may have screwed his own cause by sending out the public email," she wrote. "Seems like it might not be all that ethical/legal in the bid process to solicit (intergovernmental agreements) after you put a (request for proposal) out for a private bid."

On Thursday night, Richards conceded she made a mistake.

"I will be the first one to say I made the wrong decision," Richards said. "... I made some derogatory comments about Commissioner Lutz, about him making some unethical or possibly illegal choices. Badmouthing a county commissioner, in my position, was not the right thing to do, whether it was private or public. I freely admit I made the wrong decision."

She maintained, however, that she felt that what Lutz "was asking for was unethical, and I don't think I need to go into why, but I didn't think badmouthing was something that needed to be in the paper. So, I made the wrong decision to keep (the emails) quiet, and now it's in the paper."

Councilman Joe Anglin gave Richards credit for being upfront about the issue at Thursday's meeting.

"She has sat here and listened to all of us. She knows the accusations and yet she's gone about it in a dignified manner, and I respect her for that," he said.

Mayor Mike Miller, who doesn't have voting power except in the case of a tie, said he believed the whole issue was handled "unprofessionally" at the council meeting.

He added he believed that Richards had been "blindsided by serious accusations."

"Obviously, everyone else on the council knew about this," he said. "I can't have respect for that."

Asked afterward whether he had an opinion on whether she violated the law, Miller said he wasn't sure.

"I haven't had time to digest it. I was blindsided just like (Richards) was," he said.

Richards acknowledged after the meeting that wasn't aware of Fetterman's motion until the meeting. She added that she believes Lutz's open records request "was illegal and immoral given his position on the review board of the (requests for qualifications)."

Fetterman declined to say after the meeting how he had obtained the e-mails.

"Someone called me and gave them to me," he said.