OPINION — Those of us who follow local government have just about had it with Mayor Kim Learnard. Once again, at the February 6 city council workshop meeting, Learnard demonstrated more manipulation than civic leadership.
Watching the video of the workshop meeting, I just threw up my hands while watching Learnard attempting to manipulate two brand new council members into violating the city’s charter and ordinances to achieve her disguised goals (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4RhbGebEQE).
After viewing the video of the workshop meeting, I immediately called Council Member Suzanne Brown, no relation, and explained what the mayor was attempting to do at the meeting. She later confirmed that what I told her was true. Council Member Laura Johnson and Brown were casualties, not co-conspirators.
Learnard continuously running afoul
Learnard deliberately coerced Council Members Laura Johnson and Suzanne Brown in the workshop to move forward on approving council action on paying for a new transportation study for State Route 54, directing city staff to act on planning for a new east-west corridor, and making modifications to MacDuff Parkway.
The fact of the matter was Learnard did not even have an official legal quorum to conduct the meeting in the first place. Likewise, such official actions are not supposed to be taken in city workshop meetings.
I say “deliberately coerced” because Learnard has over 10 years of experience on the city council and knows the rules on what constitutes a quorum and what the council can and cannot do in a council workshop meeting. She has no excuses. Johnson and Brown, on the other hand, are brand new to council dealings, and were clearly being led astray by Learnard.
Learnard puts new council members in the pressure cooker
Please watch the video of the workshop meeting where Learnard continuously uses the term “conversation” to disguise her actual intention of pressuring the approval of official actions of the city council without a formal motion and a second. She uses the phrase “continue the conversation” to persuade Johnson and Brown and make it look as if her requests were insignificant and harmless, giving the appearance of an acceptable practice.
Brown looked very anxious and leery of Learnard’s coaxing and resisted Learnard’s attempts to approve of what the mayor was doing, especially in the absence of Council Members Clint Holland and Frank Destadio due to illness.
For her part, Johnson, hesitant, seemed to have little idea of how the workshop meetings are supposed to function and began to echo whatever the mayor was saying. She looked uncomfortable.
It was obvious neither Johnson nor Brown had any real idea what the mayor was plotting and that the city charter section on quorums was being violated. Neither really grasped what Learnard was up to by luring them to approve official actions without formal motions ever being made.
Johnson and Brown were literally asked by City Manager Robert Curnow to just “nod their heads” in an affirmative manner (you cannot make this stuff up) to approve Learnard’s scheme.
Learnard lied on several occasions, telling the two new council members that they had an official quorum for the meeting. The city charter has long required four members to be present to prevent a rogue mayor or set of council members from taking advantage and sneaking the approval of controversial items without at least a four-fifths representation of the body.
[A legal quorum to conduct official business, including making and voting on motions, requires three council members plus the mayor to be present, or four members without the mayor, according to the city charter and ordinances.]
City Manager Bob Curnow was sitting on the dais with the three members of the council, never once alerting the new council members to the perils of what was taking place. Curnow seemed to be struggling to help Learnard con the new officials. At times, Curnow looked quite anxious, fidgeting, almost giving it away that something was wrong.
What Learnard is hiding from you
The only item on the February 6 workshop meeting agenda was an obscure one-line topic: “Engineering (David Borkowski, John Schnick).” If you are a citizen looking up the meeting on the internet, you would have absolutely no idea what that vague listing means. There was no description of or details about the lone agenda item.
Also take into consideration that four of the council members, the media, and local citizens had no agenda packet materials to view in advance of the meeting as is the standard practice. Only the mayor, city manager and the engineering staff knew what was coming. This certainly aided Learnard in bamboozling the two new council members.
Johnson and Brown had nothing to study in advance and were doused with two hours of infrastructure project slides at the meeting with Learnard inappropriately coercing them into approving official actions, prodding by saying, “Are we in agreement?”
The biggest infrastructure predicament in Fayette County, the intersection of State Routes 74 and 54, was up for discussion (note, the audio is missing for a portion of that discussion, why?).
Learnard admitted that the intersection project she previously approved was “not the end all, be all,” meaning it will not solve the major east-west traffic congestion at all and will cost around $18 million. The inferior plan will take 36 months to construct, and the city has not announced any plans on how to mitigate traffic during that time.
When Brown brought up a better long-term solution for the intersection like the grade separation that has been a long-standing option, Learnard quickly dismissed it. In fact, Learnard omitted saying that grade separation was mentioned in the city’s 2014 Pond and Company engineering study.
There was head nodding to remove stop signs on MacDuff Parkway — a major change to the thoroughfare — and the city failed to notify any of the people living in subdivisions along the parkway that such a discussion would take place. That’s not transparency. That’s classic Kim Learnard.
Engineer David Borkowski mentioned numerous safety hazards with moving forward to alter MacDuff Parkway. He also mentioned the botched negotiations between the Fleisch administration and the residential developers resulting in the developers getting away with not building the required golf cart path tunnels under the parkway, creating the current at-grade golf cart hazard.
Huddleston Road is proposed to have a double left turn lane onto State Route 54 and drivers will not be allowed to cross the highway to the Best Buy shopping area. Sewer capacity is also coming to Huddleston Road and the mayor’s lips are sealed on what she would like to see redeveloped there.
What to do with Kim Learnard?
Learnard also began talking in babble code about pursuing an “alternative” east-west route. Many of us are certain this means she wants to resurrect the TDK Extension debacle. It’s always frustrating when Learnard hides what she is really intending, knowing her positions are controversial.
The slide presentation from the workshop meeting was intentionally withheld and the projects up for discussion were not disclosed to the public in advance on the city’s website, defying standard practice.
The only reason why there was not an agenda packet, and just an obscure agenda is the mayor did not want you to see it. The despotic Learnard also withheld all the prepared meeting materials from the other council members and then she tried to hoodwink the newbies.
Sadly, it’s the latest of a string of violations for Learnard, including the recent violation of the Georgia Open Meeting Act when she conducted secret, closed-door meetings on zoning variances with no public notice, no meeting agenda, and no meeting minutes (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/07/10/opinion-if-city-oks-half-of-all-variance-requests-in-private-how-can-zoning-ordinance-survive/).
Learnard offered no apology then and we should not expect one on her latest violations. City Manager Bob Curnow also participated in the illegal secret meetings before, and he never issued an apology either.
It was also Learnard along with former Council Member Mike King and Planning Director Robin Cailloux who lied to former Council Member Gretchen Caola in a council meeting, saying the city could forfeit millions of dollars of impact fees if she did not cast a vote for Learnard’s urbanization changes to the city’s comprehensive plan at that meeting. Caola did not have enough experience to know if they where being truthful or not.
I have deep misgivings when city staff chooses to collaborate in the attempts to deceive members of the city council and the public. When that happened in the past, the employees were let go.
It’s no secret that Learnard engaged with the pro-urbanization political action committee Plan for PTC. The photos of Learnard in her Plan for PTC t-shirt are all over the internet (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/04/03/opinion-what-and-who-is-behind-push-for-stacked-multi-family-complexes/). She is promoting the Plan for PTC policy and it is well outside of what the average Peachtree City citizen is willing to tolerate.
There are undoubtedly ethics charges that could be filed. However, it would be difficult to recall Learnard because the process is intentionally difficult. Citizens need to be vigilant, demand transparency, and maintain a healthy distrust of anything she says or does. However, if she continues to disregard state law and our ordinances, there is no choice but to file charges.
Learnard’s lack of remorse when she has violated state law, the city’s charter and ordinances, and the public’s trust is beyond a red flag. It’s more like a raging bonfire.
In 30 years of closely following local and state politics, I have never witnessed such a collection of brazen unlawful and dishonest acts as those from the two-plus years of Learnard as mayor. Only the ultra-corrupt Peachtree City Development Authority more than 15 years ago might have been worse (and it was disbanded).
Over a decade of experience on the city council has not made Learnard wiser, but instead it made her more emboldened to cheat the system.
[Brown is a former mayor of Peachtree City and served two terms on the Fayette County Board of Commissioners. You can read all his columns by clicking on his photo below.]