Code enforcement has been a major point of contention in the early voting period of the District 5 special election. Issues raised by candidates and community members have ranged from campaign sign violations and stealing of signs to excess animals in a residence, to issues raised about the ethics and qualifications of another candidate.
In an anonymous submission to the Courier, a member of the community raised concerns about candidate Bobby Ryon’s qualifications for the District 5 council seat. Specifically, the claim states:
“A notice of concern regarding violations of the city of Hinesville Georgia Code of Ordinances by one or more candidates participating in the special election District 5, City Council,” the submission read. “The ordinances detail the concerns: Sec. 2-102- Coercion by City Official; Sec. 2-103- Voting in matters of personal interest; Sec. 2-136-Conflict of interest; Sec 2-158- Confidential Information; Sec. 2-160 (b)- Political Activity. It has been brought to my attention that the spouse of one candidate is employed by the city in a financial capacity. The aforementioned ordinances are clearly in violation and the candidate is ineligible to run for election in Hinesville City Council District 5.”
According to City Manager Ken Howard, candidates would have been unable to qualify for the election if they were in violation of ordinances.
“The City Clerk has vetted the candidates, and he’s qualified and eligible to run,” Howard said. “I have spoken to Ms. Ryon, and suggested that she conduct herself accordingly. No employee ought to campaign while at work. If they aren’t working, and campaign on their own time, that’s their decision. I would not advise my employees to get involved in city elections.”
Those ordinances in question refer to Ryon’s potential influence as a council member, and the possibility of bias towards matters which Ryon may have a stake in. Ryon’s wife, Kimberly Ryon, serves as the City of Hinesville’s Chief Financial Officer.
After further review, there are no indications that he can’t serve a District 5 council member while his wife serves the city. As long as he qualified, he can run, Howard said.
District 5 candidate Betty Phelps, made an appeal to council at the Feb. 21 council meeting asking for an exception to the city ordinance concerning the number of animals in a single residence.
Phelps, a resident since 1999, stood before council to plead her case. After a report and subsequent violation from code enforcement about the number of animals she and her husband take in, Phelps approached the mayor, city manager and council. Seven out of 11 pets, Phelps said, are senior citizens, and “they are our family.”
Phelps is known to rescue dogs and cats in the city, and works closely with the animal shelter to find stray animals homes.
Phelps provided letters of reference from their veterinarians, therapists and good friends to support her claim, she said.
“My husband and I are both disabled and retired, and these are letters from our therapists saying that many of our animals are emotional support animals,” Phelps said.
Section 4-5e: Manner of Keeping, Prohibited Conditions, and Complaint reads “It shall be unlawful for any person to keep or maintain more than five domestic animals on the premises of any residential property within the City. For the purposes of this section, residential property shall include all property zoned for residential use and properties that are being used for residential purposes regardless of zoning.”
“Code Enforcement addresses all violations by the same process,” Howard said. “The officer receives a complaint or request. They investigate to find out whether there is in fact a violation of a city ordinance present. If there are no violations found, the case is closed. If a violation is present, officers typically issue violation notices and work with residents or property owners to bring the property into compliance.”
According to Howard, there is no appeal process for the Chapter 4 of the Hinesville Code of Ordinances at this time. Residents or property owners are able to plead their case before the Municipal Court Judge, who will render a final decision.
Phelps’s situation is still under investigation at this time, Howard said. The city and attorneys are reviewing the additional information provided about the case. At this time, Phelps still remains in violation of the city ordinance, he continued.
In regards to campaign signage violations, candidate Andrew Smith Sr. claimed that signs around District 5 are in violation of city ordinances. All candidates received an outline concerning temporary sign placement from the city when they qualified for the election, Howard said.
Multiple times, Smith has submitted emails to both the City of Hinesville Director of Inspections George Smith, Mayor Allen Brown, and Howard. Those emails detail specific roads and areas of District 5 that have sign violations. Howard said he has sent his staff members to canvas those roads in question, and remove any signs that remain in violation of the ordinance.
“We are aiming to enforce our city ordinances in a consistent manner,” he said.
As of March 4, Code enforcement officers have removed nine signs of candidate Hannah Williams-Donegan, seven signs of candidate Karl Riles, and two signs of Smith, Howard said.
On residential-zoned properties, candidates may have more than one temporary sign, but they must not exceed a total of 16-square-feet cumulatively. Non-residential properties have the same guidelines as residential, but include an additional 10-foot setback from the edge of the right-of-way, the ordinance said. If the land is undeveloped, the 10-foot setback requirement does not apply. The ordinance doesn’t specifically address campaign signs, Howard said, but the city established that they fall within the temporary signs category.
The process Code Enforcement follows to remove signs includes: photographing the violation, documenting the location, and then contacting the campaign’s point of contact to inform them of the violation and removal, Howard added.
However, Smith submitted two police reports in regards to his signs being stolen or tampered with.
According to the report provided to the Courier by Smith, someone had tampered with and placed one of Smith’s signs in front of a subdivision off of S. Main Street and Hunters Run Road. The sign was processed for fingerprints by Hinesville Police Department at Smith’s request, but none were found, the report read.
In a second incident report¸ HPD Officer responded to Smith’s report that two of his campaign signs had been taken from the road across from Governor’s Quarters on W 15th Street and another from the road in front of Independence Place. Smith checked on the signs March 4 and they were missing, the report read.
“SCPL Ewing contacted Code Enforcement and was advised they absolutely did take Mr. Smith’s signs,” the report read. Smith said the signs were placed on undeveloped property, and that the required 10-foot setback was not required.
However, Howard said Code Enforcement has made some minor changes in regards to the process for the special election.
“The policy we have installed specifically for this campaign is that if my staff removes any campaign sign, staff is instructed to take a picture of the location of the sign, remove the sign, and then contact the campaign. We have all those records on file, to make sure we’re consistent with our application,” Howard said. “In addition to that, we’re doing this because this is a short period of time so far as the special election is concerned. We are not discarding any signs at this point during the election. It’s only one seat being voted on. Whereas, in the general election, you have six vacant seats. This policy is for the purpose of this one seat. For the purpose of this election, we’re going to hold all signs until after the election, and 10-days after, we will discard them. We’re trying hard to work with everyone.”