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Heated clashes erupt in Lula despite resolution for civility
Lula resident Juliette Roberts addresses council at Monday’s meeting. - photo by Brian Wellmeier

Moments after the passage of a civility resolution, a state of disorder took hold of Lula’s regular meeting Monday. 

Despite Mayor Joe Thomas’ effort to silence criticism of his administration with the adoption of a policy limiting public comments only to agenda items, a series of clashes and heated exchanges went on for nearly 20 minutes as some of the 20-plus residents disregarded the policy altogether. 

Local business owner Amanda Browning – a leading organizer of a movement to recall Thomas and Councilman Gene Bramlett – was the first to speak to council. She announced that she’s accepting signatures for an application to recall the two elected officials at the location of her business – Amanda’s Farm to Fork. 

Browning's comments were followed by remarks from Robert Grizzle, who filed a complaint last June against the city’s code enforcement office that led to a 45-page investigative report accusing city leaders of misconduct. 

During the meeting, Grizzle accused Thomas of calling him a liar, citing a post on the mayor’s official Facebook page from last week that, in part, stated, “After a lot of innuendoes and false accusations, the investigator determined that (Grizzle’s) accusation was false.”

Thomas interrupted Grizzle and a debate ensued thereafter.

“That investigation’s over with,” Thomas said. “We don’t need to keep bringing that thing up.”

“You wrote this on Facebook calling me a liar,” Grizzle replied. “This is a blatant lie meant to intimidate and mislead the citizens of Lula.”

The city has not taken the position that Grizzle’s accusation was false, Lula attorney Joey Homans said, though no action was warranted against those named in the report.

Thomas then took on an argumentative tone with resident Emory Coker, who was dismissed by the mayor almost immediately after he tried to speak Monday. Coker later said he believed Thomas was trying to “bully” him into silence. 

Tensions ran even higher when resident Joseph Johnson accused the mayor’s wife, Patti Thomas, of engaging in acts of intimidation against political opponents on social media. 

He claimed that Patti Thomas questioned Councilman Chip Horst’s mental capacity and his ability to serve as an elected official in a post she shared over Facebook last week.

“Y’all just adopted a (civility) amendment (tonight)…that includes the way you conduct yourselves electronically,” Johnson said. “However, making public posts about council members and their mental health issues that they may or may not have by your wife…”

“Don’t attack my wife,” Thomas interjected. 

“’s OK for your wife to attack (people)?” Johnson exclaimed. “’s harassment. It's bullying…that’s why there’s a recall going on.”

Addressing the statements, Horst speculated to The Times that someone must’ve overheard him say before last week’s work session that he struggles with spells of anxiety. According to the American Psychiatric Association, nearly 30% of adults experience anxiety disorders at some point in their life. 

Patti Thomas, who has also been accused of targeting Browning and her business via social media, denied the accusations and said she’s never named anyone in her social media posts. 

“If anyone can come up with anything I’ve posted on social media against Amanda (Browning), they can show it to me,” said Patti Thomas, who added that a post she shared about a council member’s mental health wasn’t directed at Horst. 

Browning sent screenshots to The Times that appear to show Patti Thomas posting photos of Amanda’s Farm to Fork in a negative light. 

Homans explained that the city’s social media policy doesn’t apply to the mayor’s wife as it does city officials and employees.

“From the city’s perspective, (that) policy would only apply to personnel,” he said. 

Roy Hall was the sole resident who tried to speak in defense of Thomas, but he was mocked and heckled by Browning and proponents of the recall movement as soon as he reached the podium.  

Thomas soon lost control of the meeting and lashed out at the audience, shouting for them to “leave (Hall) alone.”

“...these people are doing nothing but sowing strife and contention,” Hall said over the commotion. “...attacking individuals, attacking the mayor, attacking council members with false accusations. God knows it’s false. You can think whatever you want to think.”

Just as Hall returned to his seat, resident Juliette Roberts rushed to the podium and appeared to provide commentary on both factions in the room.

“...what are we teaching our kids here?” she said. “Are we teaching our kids it’s OK to stand up when something is wrong, or are we teaching our kids that we need to back down because it’s not OK to say something? Last I checked, we’re allowed to stand up to bullies, and that means any bully.”

Before the meeting adjourned, Councilman Garnett Smith said citizens should always have the right to voice their concerns to council during public comments. 

Bramlett called on residents to follow rules of civility in the wake of the apparent division.

“You all are the people that make this city – not the council, not any one individual,” he said. “I wish that all this anger and hate – no matter which side it’s coming from – would stop.”