At a work session Monday, longtime resident Robert Grizzle went before Lula’s City Council, held up a 45-page investigation riddled with accusations of misconduct against city officials, and called for the resignation of Code Enforcement Officer Doug Forrester and Councilman Gene Bramlett, citing what he described as an abuse of power.
“This is a clear finding of abuse of power – on the office of the code enforcement and of the city council member,” Grizzle said. “It was very well corroborated that (at least) three citizens called into (city hall) to complain about two men riding around, filming (residents’ properties), taking pictures…it’s unsettling, very unsettling.”
Grizzle filed a written complaint against Forrester in July, after Forrester confronted Grizzle on his property over his chickens and questions of zoning. The complaint prompted City Manager Dennis Bergin to hire retired Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Michael Rundles, of Southern Professional Investigations, for more than $5,000.
The final 45-page report submitted by Rundles contains allegations that for months Forrester received instruction from Bramlett to target residents – including Grizzle, who described Forrester’s demeanor during the incident as “threatening” – through the city’s code enforcement office.
While Rundles found Forrester didn't violate the city’s personnel policy, written statements in the retired agent’s report reveal a bevy of allegations against some of Lula’s top elected officials. The report also outlines existing divisions within city leadership, which was reshaped just this year after Mayor Joe Thomas and Bramlett defeated long-time incumbents.
It was later confirmed by Bergin that Grizzle’s chickens, which he says have been on his property for 20-plus years, were in compliance with city codes – as well as Hall County’s – and are permitted under current law.
Allegations against elected officials
In the report, Joe and Patti Thomas are accused of taking pictures of residents' properties with their phones on weekend rides through the city and sending them to others, including Bramlett. The report alleges some of these photos were likely submitted as complaints to code enforcement. The mayor and his wife are said to have also sent pictures of Councilwoman Denise Shockley’s home to Bramlett, according to statements made in the report. Shockley was named in the investigation after she was reported to code enforcement in June, allegedly by either Bramlett, Joe and Patti Thomas or all three coordinating together.
“Investigator asked Bramlett who sent him pictures of Shockley’s property,” the report states. “(Bramlett) stated it was the mayor’s wife. Bramlett stated he went straight to Doug Forrester, showed him the pictures, showed him who sent them to him and told (Forrester) he needed to check it out.”
The report states that when Forrester suggested to Bramlett that he consult Bergin before enforcing a complaint against a sitting member of council, Bramlett advised against it and directed him to address it.
“(Forrester) stated Bramlett told him he shouldn’t do that,” the report says. “He should handle it himself.”
Bramlett maintains in the report that the photos of Shockley’s residence were sent to him by Patti Thomas, who seemed to admit to taking a photo of Shockley’s property during an exchange the two women had at a gas station, according to statements Shockley made to Rundles.
Shockley states in the report that she lives on Shockley Road, and that “it was not a heavily traveled road,” implying it would take effort for Joe and Patti Thomas to drive by and photograph her property. She was reported to code enforcement about a month before Grizzle for complaints she had household appliances in her yard.
“Shockley stated Patti told her when she took the picture (of the yard), that was the first time she had been down (Shockley’s) road,” the report says. “(Shockley) stated (to Rundles) she thought this was odd because (Mayor Joe Thomas) had told her (a washer and dryer) had been there for six months.”
Shockley told Rundles this led her to believe the mayor “had been looking at her property for a long time.”
Statements in the investigation by Bramlett to Rundles allege the mayor and his wife took these weekend rides, specifically to scout for potential code violations within the city, on frequent occasions.
“(Bramlett) stated the mayor and Patti got out every Saturday and rode the whole city of Lula and looked for violations,” the report states.
Bergin told The Times he’s had members of the community raise concerns to him directly that they believe they were targeted by the city via code enforcement, allegedly executed by Bramlett and Felton Wood – the candidate of a failed 2017 mayoral bid and a vocal supporter of both Bramlett and Thomas. Wood is described throughout the report as a close associate and personal friend of Bramlett.
“On the very day (Grizzle) came to the council meeting and brought up his concerns, that very day we had people calling here and say somebody was driving around town taking videos (of properties), it’s in the report – they identified Gene (Bramlett) and Felton (Wood),” Bergin said.
Forrester told Rundles during the investigation that Bramlett allegedly advised code enforcement’s visit to Grizzle’s property, which led to the confrontation in July.
“Forrester stated on that day he went to the Grizzle residence after he had received a complaint,” the report states. “He stated earlier he had received a complaint from a citizen who had been riding around town…Forrester stated (it was) one of their council members (who) pointed that out to him. Investigator asked Forrester the name of the councilmember and he stated it was Gene Bramlett.”
Similar to allegations surrounding Thomas, the investigation states that Bramlett took frequent rides through Lula alongside Wood and accuses the two men of patrolling the city, taking photos and videos of private properties.
Multiple accounts in the report state that Bramlett and Wood “rode around town together and took pictures of the Grizzle property,” as well as the homes of other residents. Grizzle’s wife Loretta told Rundles she witnessed both Bramlett and Wood drive by her home and take photographs of their property while her grandchildren were in the swimming pool.
“(Loretta) stated Bramlett drove up near her residence and he had his phone up,” the report reads. “…she stated Wood had driven by their property with his phone hanging out of the window.”
Bramlett said the accusations against him are false, and Wood declined to comment.
“(Bergin) stated on the day (Grizzle’s wife) Loretta made her claim about someone taking pictures of her property and her grandchildren, Bramlett and Wood were riding around together taking pictures of property, and there were complaints from three separate individuals about them,” the report states.
The report went on to detail additional statements by several witnesses who claim to have seen Wood and Bramlett driving the city in a “gray SUV” together, recording or photographing the homes of people in the community. On one occasion, a witness took to social media to alert others about suspicious activity in the area, allegedly being carried out by Wood and Bramlett, according to the report.
“Somebody posted on Facebook…‘Anyone notice a gray SUV driving slow past houses around Lula today, taking pictures and video? If so, do you know why?’” Bergin states in the report.
The two men are later identified by Assistant City Clerk Amy Cole, who told Rundles in the report that she “saw a gray SUV where a man got out of a vehicle and appeared to take pictures of some property…the individual was Felton Wood and he was the occupant of the vehicle driven by Gene Bramlett.”
Bramlett, who denied all accusations levied against him in the report, said he drives a silver Buick Encore, a compact SUV.
“There’s no truth to that,” Bramlett said. “Me and Felton Wood have never rode around taking any pictures of anybody, anywhere. This has already been investigated, so people need to let it drop.”
Micromanagement at city hall
According to the report, statements by Bergin suggest intervention and micromanagement of affairs at Lula City Hall by elected officials had become more frequent since Thomas and Bramlett took office, specifically involving the oversight of Forrester’s job.
“(Bergin) stated Forrester had been put in a position where it was difficult for him to do his job,” the report states. “...he stated what had happened lately, the new council members were not sure of their responsibilities and what to do. (Bergin) stated he didn’t want to discourage (council’s) involvement – however, (council) has micromanaged several positions without going through him.”
“(Bergin) stated for the most part it had been Bramlett who had tried to micromanage positions,” the report goes on to state. “...Thomas had been guilty of the same thing at times.”
Forrester said the “report speaks for itself” and wouldn’t say whether receiving orders from a sitting member of council to inspect certain properties interfered with his ability to perform his job.
In the report, Grizzle said he believes Bramlett retaliated against him using Forrester’s authority because of Grizzle’s known dislike of Wood, who said he had “no comment” regarding the accusations.
Grizzle said he believes the incident in July, and the revelations that have since emerged from the report, have hindered his inclination as a constituent to voice his concerns to Bramlett.
Thomas declined to comment on whether allegations against him in the investigation are true.
Resident Roy Hall said that while “there’s been a lot of strife going on” between residents and factions of city leadership, he believes Lula is “not divided.” Hall defended Bramlett to The Times, stating he has no knowledge of Bramlett executing acts of retaliation against residents or fellow council members.
“It’s unfortunate how people do things in a negative way to try to stir up division,” Hall said. “As far as I know, that’s not true…Gene (Bramlett) didn’t have anything to do with taking the pictures.”
“My understanding is the pictures were taken by somebody else – I don’t know if it was Felton (Wood) or somebody else…but the accusations that he rode around with Felton are not true,” he said. “When (people) don’t like someone, they try to do dirty politics, stir up strife and then report lies. That’s kind of what’s swirling around up here.”
Rundles’ investigation concluded that while Forrester wasn’t in violation of city policy, improved channels of communication between the mayor, council and city employees might've prevented or resolved the situation before it escalated.