City Council welcomes David Jones, and Jim Robinson addresses conflict of interest at monthly meeting

City Council Meeting 5.8.23 Resources:

After the opening invocation from Eddie Talley, and the Pledge of Allegiance on Monday May 5, Mayor Pro-tempore Councilman Jim Robinson kicked off the meeting in Butch Womack’s absence.  

The council members went around the table to provide their monthly updates.  There were no updates from most of the wards, but the council did welcome David Jones from Ward 4.  

Jim Robinson addressed that he was accused of having a conflict of interest on voting for the Sheriff Mill Brown annexation.  Citizens have mentioned in a previous Easley Combined Utility meeting that Mr. Robinson’s law firm receives a monthly stipend as the attorney of record for Easley Combined Utilities.  Robinson revealed that he has requested an opinion from the South Carolina Ethics Commission on the topic and he will abide by their opinion.  

In a separate statement to us following the ECU meeting, Mr. Robinson explained why he doesn’t find there to be any conflict of interest: 

“It is my understanding that the standard of review in evaluating alleged or potential conflicts of interest for an elected official in S.C. is: 

Will voting on a matter gain an economic interest for the elected official? 

Concerning the proposed annexation of property on Brown Drive, the Pickens County Assessor lists the owner as Catherine Sheriff Goshorn, whose mailing address is in Melbourne, Florida. I do not know Ms. Goshorn and I do not represent her concerning her request for annexation or the potential sale of her property. 

It appears from the City’s Planning Commission minutes that the potential purchaser / developer of the Brown Drive property is Forestar Real Estate Group. I do not represent Forestar. 

From prior Council minutes, you will read that I have recused myself from voting on matters when my client is a party to the matter before Council. I do not represent Ms. Goshorn or Forestar Real Estate Group, so no conflict of interest exists based on my representation of a party to the matter before Council. 

From second-hand sources, including yours, I have heard that persons attended the April 17, 2023 meeting of the Commissioners of Easley Combined Utilities System to inquire about the relationship between Combined Utilities, Jim Robinson, and Robinson Law Firm, P.A. (RLF). 

Combined Utilities is the municipal utility system, or Commission of Public Works, in and for the City of Easley. Combined Utilities is governed by three commissioners elected by voters residing in the City of Easley. Combined Utilities provides water, sewer, and electric services in and around Easley. 

RLF is general counsel to Combined Utilities. Combined pays a monthly retainer fee to RLF. RLF also renders legal services to Combined Utilities on an as-needed basis and RLF bills Combined for these services. 

RLF has rendered no legal services whatsoever to Combined Utilities in connection with the proposed annexation by the City of Easley of the Brown Drive property, because, from Combined’s perspective, there have been no issues for which Combined Utilities required legal services. 

From your email, it seems that the persons attending the April 17, 2023 meeting believe that if Combined Utilities gains new customers from the annexation of the Brown Drive property, then somehow RLF will also benefit from Combined’s new customers. 

I assure you that RLF does not receive a percentage of Combined’s revenue. If Combined Utilities has 12,200 sewer customers today, or 13,200 customers in the future, RLF and Jim Robinson will not receive an economic benefit from an increase in Combined’s customer base. 

I do not have a conflict of interest in voting on the proposed Brown Drive annexation. Nevertheless, I will request an opinion on the matter from the S.C. Ethics Commission and will abide by their opinion.” 

Mr. Robinson, acting as Mayor Pro-tempore, then opened the floor to citizens wishing to address the City Council.  Every speech is included at the end of the article. Citizens took turns speaking on the annexation of Sheriff Mill and Brown Drive, a request for increased transparency and the recording of the City Council Work Sessions at City Hall (where the capability exists according to Ms. Davidson), and arguments against rezoning as it has resulted in other uses than those originally petitioned for, increased traffic in residential neighborhoods, and more.  

Robinson then moved on to updates on city activity.  The acting Administrator Tommy Holcombe did not have any updates.

Onto unfinished business, a second reading of Ordinance 2023-07 to rezone approximately 1.35 acres of property located at 109 Brushy Creek Road from Office Institutional (OI) to Neighborhood Commercial (NC).  As mentioned in last month’s article, the Planning Commission heard this on March 20th and they approved it.  Last month, the council approved as well, see discussion and votes and for the entire meeting HERE.  

As part of the discussion, Davidson pointed out that in the application, the owner said he was wanting to sell shampoo.  The owner is allowed to sell shampoo in OI current zoning, so the rezoning to NC is unnecessary according to Ms. Davidson. Robinson, Webb, Garrison, and Breazeale voted in favor, and Davidson and Jones voted against.  It was approved 4 to 2.

In new business, the first reading of Ordinance 2023-08 to provide for the adoption of a city annual operating budget for July 1, 2023 – June 30, 2024.  The total balanced budget proposal for the COE is $25,739,334.  Last year was $26,950,140 which is a -4.5% decrease YoY.  

Discussion notes were that the city is proposing 1) a 3 mill rate increase, 2) a 4% Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA)- this will cost the city approximately $506,480, 3) a new firefighter, 4) a new rec employee, 5) a new fire truck, 6) a new garbage truck, and 7) $254,000 for the implementation of a classification and compensation study using the Archer company which should be completed in the next few months.  

In the working session at City Hall and then again at the City Council meeting, Davidson had asked the question of whether the study would take into account experience and education, and Holcombe said that it would not.  Therefore, these need to be taken into consideration as well when looking at the results of the study.  

Additional important expenditures are the proposed replacement of streetlights along main streets such as Pendleton, First, and on both sides of the railroad tracks and in Market Square.  This will cost $575,000.  There are other capital improvements as well, totaling $3,660,464.  After the discussion, there was a vote.  Those in favor were Robinson, Garrison, Breazeale and Webb.  Those against were Davidson and Jones.  It passed 4 to 2.

The meeting then adjourned.

Citizens that were heard at city council:

Harold Kendel – The resident of the County, took Easley City council to task, suggesting that some city officials are in it for the wrong reasons, such as car payments, and saying that decisions made here will profit them at their other jobs.  He said that in the past, the COE has not done proper notification for special hearings, and said that when the time comes for Sheriff Mill annexation, we will see which council members do the right thing.  

Justin Alexander – Mr. Alexander in ward 5 came to speak about transparency saying he was glad that the main city council meetings are recorded, but that we are under-utilizing our resources.  Folks who work can come to the city council meetings that start later at 7pm or watch the live stream to see where the final votes net out, but most can’t make it to the public council work sessions at City Hall that start at 5pm.  He would like to have the work sessions recorded as well since that is where the discussion happens so that we can see our government at work.  

Janie Moore – Ms. Moore said she spoke both at the city and county council meetings and noted a difference in tone and congeniality between the two meetings.  At the county council meeting the doors were left open to allow people outside to come in when their name was called to speak. When time ran out and not all the folks had an opportunity to speak, the council members chose to provide 15 additional minutes.  Ms. Moore also addressed the possible conflict of interest in having  Jim Robinson vote on annexation issues as the attorney on retainer for Easley Combined Utilities.  She said the county does not want to be annexed into the city of Easley and over 2,000 people have signed petitions or spoke against this annexation.  The property is a protected watershed and provides homes to wildlife.  She pleaded that we do not want to be an extension of Greenville.  Many people have moved here from around the USA and chose Easley because it was a small town.  As she closed, she reminded the council they have to go through the election process, and their constituents are watching and learning what they are doing to our lovely little city.

Lisa McAdams – Ms. McAdams read that Easley was planning on voting to spend approximately $500,000 on new lighting for downtown.  She agrees that beautification is great and very important for those who live in the City of Easley but keeping residents safe is more important than new lampposts.  She said she looked at the streetlights while driving and besides a good cleaning, they seemed in fine working order.  Her suggestion was to hire more police officers for the $500,000.  Highway 123 is dangerous to travel on, and it would be better served to have police officers patrolling that road.  She thinks Easley is becoming a city where no one is afraid of breaking the law and additional officers could help create revenue by giving unsafe drivers violations and fines.  She closed by saying that if you really want to keep Easley clean, please show up on the third Saturday of every month and help the few of us who do pick up litter.  She is personally there every month because she cares and all of you should too.

Kaye Young – Ms. Young lived in Easley for 48 years, taught school here and raised two sons here.  She has seen Easley decline with thousands of new homes added since 2000.  More will come if property is allowed to be rezoned, and there are a few areas of concern.  The noise on 123 is unchecked with all the trees that have been cut down on the lots of Avalon Circle.  Nearby was rezoned Commercial, namely Landscapers Supply and Ace Hardware.  No decent fence has been put up and the noise goes from 6am to well into 12 am and 1am in the morning.  

“Before you vote to rezone more land into commercial from residential property please think about these points,” she said.  “Our water supply is in jeopardy due to the silt runoff of developments, our stormwater areas are decreasing due to overdevelopment and our food sources are decreasing and need to be protected, our wildlife needs protection by providing ordinances to protect them, and we need to protect our wetlands by expanding the setback ordinance around the water.  Further, cutting down acres of trees decreases our oxygen supply.  Stop ignoring these ordinances during design and building.  Natural beauty and quality of life is disappearing.  She closed by saying we need more than rooftops and automobiles to look at.  We need repairs.  Do not build if you can’t follow ordinances.  Current citizens have rights.  We elected you to help citizens not developers.  Traffic and infrastructure need attention.” 

Lethea Parker – Ms. Parker is a resident of Stewart Drive was the person who was not allowed to finish her statement at the last meeting due to time.  She had addressed the reasons why the corner of SE street and Grigsby Avenue should not be rezoned.  She returned tonight and thanked the council for voting the way they did.  She went on to address the current traffic in the area, and specifically at the intersection of Stewart and Burns four way stop.  Some are state roads, but Burns Avenue, SE street, Bowen Avenue, Grace Avenue, Grigsby Avenue are city owned.  She did an unscientific study and no matter the day of the week (excluding Sunday) she has counted over 100 cars per hour at that intersection.  Between 5 and 6pm she counted 142 cars.  People from Pickens also cut through from 93 to 123 as a shortcut.  The current ordinance is written to ensure safe and convenient traffic control and movement including a reduction or prevention of congestion of public streets including convenience of access for multiple modes of transportation.  We need a well-planned straight street system.  In another ordinance it states that the purpose of zoning is to protect against undue concentration of population and overcrowding of land within the city.  Easley is a beautiful city. We love it. When you are making decisions, please consider not rezoning all this property and to keep Easley as pretty as it always has been.  She quickly closed with “Take care of the potholes.”

Map of Burns and Stewart intersection in Easley