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Lula Mayor-elect Joe Thomas, a newcomer to politics, has big plans for the city
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Lula Mayor Joe Thomas - photo by Scott Rogers

Even after 32 years in Lula, Mayor Joe Thomas said there’s still a lot for him to learn about his local government. 

Thomas, 73, doesn’t have any political experience but started going to more city council meetings in 2021 after he felt the city wasn’t being very communicative with residents. He beat incumbent mayor Jim Grier in November, helping oust three Lula City Council incumbents alongside other political newcomers, Councilman Gene Bramlett, and Councilwoman Denise Shockley. The trio, sworn in on Dec. 20, all ran on similar issues, saying the city needed to be more transparent with residents following a controversial derelict property ordinance change and a proposed downtown townhouse development this summer. 

“There’s a lot of stuff that I don’t know; there’s a lot I need to get a handle on,” Thomas said.

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Lula Mayor Joe Thomas, pictured in 2021, has been accused of targeting residents through code enforcement by taking pictures of residents' properties with his phone on weekend rides through the city and sending them to a city council member. A report alleges some of these photos were likely submitted as complaints to code enforcement. Thomas has declined comment. - photo by Scott Rogers

But his lack of experience won’t deter him from dreaming big in Lula. He wants to look into ways to fund the city’s own police department instead of being covered by Banks and Hall county sheriff’s offices. 

In a meeting in October, representatives from both Banks and Hall counties told the city council that Lula was sufficiently covered, but Thomas took this as a slight. 

“The whole meeting was spent saying how we don’t need a police department,” he said. “I know we won’t do it right away.”

Funding may be difficult to come by for the small East Hall city, especially because Thomas said he would not want to establish a city property tax. 

But more than anything, Thomas wants more people civically engaged.

“We’ve got 3,000 people and you’ve only got 30 people at the city council meetings, that’s less than 1%,” he said. “It’s kind of disheartening.”

He has issues with the city’s website, which he called outdated. Better social media engagement and a city newsletter could help keep people in the loop, he said, but few people subscribe to the city’s newsletter now. 

“It’s in effect but it’s ineffectual, — nobody’s using it,” Thomas said. “They’re not totally using Facebook like I think it can be used.”

For most of his life, Thomas has lived in small towns. He was born in Anniston, Alabama, then moved to Albany, Georgia, at age 6. He spent his high school years in Baconton and graduated from Georgia Tech in 1970.

But he spent much of his professional life as a printer working in Oakwood and Doraville, while living in Lula most of that time. 

He tried retiring in 2010 but started working for the post office two years later. He and his wife, Patti, have lived 32 years on the same lot. Initially they bought a double-wide trailer but have since built a house on the same footprint, he said. 

One issue he’s seen go unfixed for years is finding an alternate route for semi trucks that need to cross Lula’s train tracks downtown close to the Hall and Banks county border. 

“Sometimes the train sits here for two or three hours at a time,” he said. “There’s nowhere for them to get by. I got to find somewhere.”

The Cobb Street railroad bridge is frequently inaccessible and semi trucks can’t use it regardless. 

Other issues downtown stem from the COVID-19 pandemic. Only one dine-in restaurant remains and some locations have converted to catering-only. 

Thomas wants to see more options for residents. One restaurateur told him there wasn’t enough foot traffic to support a new restaurant.

“So now we’ve got to get more people in here,” he said. “But we can’t get more people in here until there’s more restaurants. What are we going to do? We’ve got to find the answer.”