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Roswell council remains divided over development, leadership

ROSWELL, Ga. — Roswell Mayor Lori Henry appears in for a workout this year as the City Council began the new year where it left off the old — divided over key issues.

Henry, who presides over meetings but is not permitted to vote except in case of a tie, was called upon to cast votes on two of the nine action items at the Jan. 11 meeting, both on issues that drew harsh criticism from both sides.

Battle lines were drawn from the start when Councilman Matt Judy was nominated to serve as mayor pro tem for 2021. The mayor pro tem acts in the absence of the mayor.

Councilman Marcelo Zapata, who held the position in 2020, immediately objected, saying criteria for the post should, in part, be based on seniority. Zapata and Councilman Mike Palermo, both elected in 2015, are the most senior members of the council.

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The two also argued that another criterion for the post should be the number of votes a council member has received from residents, especially after their voting record on the council has been established.

The only criteria Councilman Judy can really brag about, Palermo said, is that he spent more money on his campaign than any other in the city’s history.

“That could actually be another criteria, the number of dollars spent per vote,” Palermo said. “Of course, Councilman Judy would not meet that criteria, either.”

The election of a mayor pro tem should reflect the will of the voting public, Palermo said, adding that he received no information that the issue would come up for a simple vote before having a chance to weigh in on a set of criteria for the position.

“It’s really disappointing the way this council’s worked the last three years,” Palermo said. “We’ve had a really tough year in 2020, and I’m really hoping [in] 2021 we can work together more and really work together for the residents. Seeing how this is starting out is definitely disappointing.”

Judy said he wouldn’t engage in petty politics.

“This community’s been through a hard 12 months, the last three being very, very tough,” Judy said. “We don’t need politics or politicians. If that’s how Councilman Palermo wants to conduct himself moving forward for the city, then that’s fine. He can do that. I will not be associated with it.”

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After a full 15 minutes of discussion, the council divided 3-3 on the nomination, with Councilwoman Christine Hall siding with Palermo and Zapata. Council members Matt Tyser and Marie Willsey joined Judy in favor of the nomination.

That left the tie-breaker to Henry, who suggested the council get together over the next year to develop criteria for the post. She said divisiveness has been going on for three years now, and she would prefer the council take steps to find consensus.

“I really don’t want to get into all this silliness, and this is silliness going on right now,” the mayor said. “I really don’t think we need to have a discussion like this again next year at this time.”

With that, Henry cast her deciding vote in favor of Judy’s appointment.

The council also divided on a change to the Unified Development Code that would set strict enforcement for developers to meet all elements of plans approved by the city. Palermo proposed the change, citing one example in which a developer backed off promises of a “mixed-use” development after winning permission to put in high-density residential.

The issue came up in December, with a majority of the council agreeing to take up the matter at a January work session, then have it fine-tuned in a committee meeting before the board votes on a final draft.

Palermo said the council is kicking the can down the road, and he suggested his motion would set a timetable for the city to act, providing adequate opportunity to refine the restrictions.

Mayor Henry argued the Roswell Community Development Department has no model from another city on which to formulate the change. She said a better approach — one approved by a council majority in December — would be to gather expert advice in drafting the change, hash it out at a work session, then have it refined in committee.

Palermo’s proposal resulted in a tie vote along the same lines as before, and Henry cast the deciding vote, killing the motion.