OPINION — From the start, let’s make it clear that Peachtree City Mayor Kim Learnard cannot defend the city’s ordinances, the Georgia Constitution, and the U.S. Constitution as she swore in her oath of office if she is not held accountable to the same.
The tailspin continues as a recent ethics allegation contends that Learnard intentionally did not disclose in-kind contributions from a local business owner and real estate developer. Learnard was also the deciding vote in a 3-2 split on a controversial rezoning for the same owner and developer, allowing a new multifamily development on Highway 54 in the center of the city with the option to build hundreds more multifamily units on the site later.
The act is inexcusable
Mayor Learnard has nearly nine years of experience in local government, and she has completed the state’s financial and campaign disclosure forms in each of those years.
Allegedly, Learnard received the in-kind contributions on two different occasions, October 5, 2021, and November 21, 2021, from the local business owner and real estate developer requesting the zoning change to build multifamily housing. I verified both of those campaign functions on her campaign Facebook page which now serves as her mayoral page.
At the June 16, 2022 city council meeting, Learnard’s behavior was so problematic that a citizen went to the public microphone, looked directly at the mayor, and asked if there was “anyone who had an ex-parte relationship with the applicants” for the rezoning and if they did, they “should recuse themselves.” This citizen went so far as to name some of the alleged in-kind offerings to Learnard’s campaign without mentioning the mayor’s name. (See: https://livestream.com/peachtreecity/councilmeeting/videos/231682386)
The mayor just sat up on the dais, cold and unmoved, and did not disclose anything. No doubt she knows the campaign disclosure law and was even given a second chance to divulge the contended financial relationship at a public meeting. She chose silence and got the job done for her campaign contributor.
I did send a text message asking Mayor Learnard for comment and did not receive a response.
Doing anything to approve it
Not only is there an allegation of non-disclosure and non-recusal, but the June 16 council meeting turned into a desperation circus.
After a motion was made and seconded, Council Member Frank Destadio began making a rational defense for maintaining the character of the community and listed the distinct problems associated with building more multifamily projects. Learnard rudely cut Destadio’s comments off and told him to wrap up his comments as though he was on a time restriction.
Council Member Mike King began spouting municipal zoning mythology, saying the multifamily developer “had the right to develop your property to the best use.” The city’s Planning Director Robin Cailloux agreed with King. The only problem is it’s totally false.
There was no entitlement, and the proposed project could have been rejected outright, which is why the council had to have a vote. Likewise, Cailloux personally admitted to me that the developers are not entitled to the best and most profitable use of their property as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. in 1926 and every ruling forward.
Both Destadio and Council Member Gretchen Caola asked if the property could be deed restricted to a total of 12 multifamily units as a condition of the rezoning. The restriction would have prevented them from adding a lot more multifamily units on that site later.
Learnard, saving venture for the alleged undisclosed campaign contributor, said it was not possible, using a lame excuse that doing so would violate the developer’s constitutional rights. It certainly was possible, but that would not achieve the objective of Learnard allowing more multifamily units on the site later.
They just make it up as they go and expect everyone to believe them. Planning Director Cailloux told the council members that the multifamily development “was in compliance” with the changes in the city’s comprehensive plan. Still, no one had seen those changes and none of those changes had been approved by a vote of the city council. It was pure lunacy, voting by a standard that did not exist.
They are not listening, and they do not care
The government is corrupt when it is special interest-driven, not driven to serve the best interests of its citizen taxpayers.
It should have been a 2-2 vote (Destadio and Caola opposed) and the motion to approve the multifamily residential building near the intersection of Highways 54 and 74, should have failed if Learnard had to ethically disclose and recuse herself due to personal prejudice.
The citizens have done everything but write their disapproval in the sky over Peachtree City. We had a citizen-driven moratorium on new multifamily construction for 20 years until Council Members Mike King, Phil Prebor, and the previous council removed it under false pretenses. Likewise, two other members of the previous council who pushed multifamily projects, Terry Ernst and Kevin Madden, were on the ballot last November, and both were defeated.
The previous Vanessa Fleisch administration attempted a large development plan near City Hall with hundreds of multifamily units. The citizens rebelled against it.
Next, they attempted another large development with hundreds of multifamily units on a site at the end of our airport runway. The citizens crushed it.
Then came the attempt to build hundreds of multifamily units behind a gas station and next to the railroad tracks in the city’s industrial area. The city’s planning commission came up with a list of reasons why the proposal was a horrible idea and voted against it 5-0.
After that vote, the city council stripped the citizen volunteer planning commission of all its authority (see: https://thecitizen.com/2021/02/25/demoted-planning-commission-can-no-longer-protect-residents-from-bait-and-switch-apartment-rezonings/ ).
The insanity continued when the city hired an urban land planning firm to create a Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) plan including thousands of multifamily units on traffic-laden Huddleston Road and around the intersection of Highways 54 and 74. The citizens smashed it to smithereens.
On August 18, the city council approved destructive changes to the city’s comprehensive plan that serve as an open pathway for multifamily project development.
How on earth can they possibly say they are acting in the best interests of the citizenry?
Getting what you voted for
It’s truly amazing how unresponsive the city council has become over the last decade. Back when I was serving the city in the early 2000s, it would have been inconceivable to not disclose financial relationships and not recuse yourself from voting.
King said at the June 16 meeting, “Things were changing.” He is right. The city council has silenced public speech at meetings. The mayor silences her colleagues if they disagree with her. They pile on large tax increases while we suffer from inflation. Learnard, King, and Prebor are determined to approve new apartments across the city and shove them down our throats. Truly, that is 180 degrees from where we were just nine years ago.
Folks, you cannot get mad at leaders for sucking the life out of our community if you keep giving them the straw to do it. Demand that candidates for elected office tell you precisely where they stand on the local issues and hold them accountable when they do the opposite.
Only one person now on the city council is currently listening to the citizens.
Imagine if Learnard, King, and Prebor campaigned for your vote by stating they wanted to greatly limit citizen speech in public meetings, use your tax dollars to sue you if you complained about their performance, push development projects that make traffic worse, raise your taxes when you can least afford it, urbanize your community with multi-story apartment buildings even though you moved here to get away from that and attempt to silence the one council member who listens to the constituents. Would you vote for them?
Of course, you would never vote for them. So, stop accepting poor performance.
[Brown is a former mayor of Peachtree City and served two terms on the Fayette County Board of Commissioners.]