Painted Horse (Part 3):  Milton’s Ghost of Politics Past Rears It’s Ugly Head

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

–William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

Unfortunately, Milton continues to be haunted by the ghosts of its sordid political past (which seems a fitting topic for the Halloween and election season).  The recent City Council hearings pertaining to The Painted Horse are a stark reminder that Milton’s politics and government remain mired in political rivalries dating back to the founding of the city.  Fittingly, these hearings come at the end of Laura Bentley’s first and perhaps last (she has opted not to run for re-election) term on Council.  On Monday night, I attended the hearing on Milton’s alcohol ordinance involving myriad changes that clearly targeted The Painted Horse and are intended to effectively shut down this winery.  (Paul Moore has indicated as much in a previous council meeting.)  The hearing was a clear abuse of process and yet another embarrassing example of Milton’s politics of personal destruction.  The gravity of Milton’s long history of dirty politics is strong.  While the cast of characters changes, Milton’s political shenanigans remain drearily the same, with citizens perennially on the proverbial short end of the stick.

Monday’s hearing was painful for those of us who previously were so hopeful about the future of Milton and invested heavily in the cause of reform.  For 2 years (2015 – 2017), a citizens’ rebellion defied Milton’s political forces that so often drag our government down into the muck and mud.  Good governance was on the march.  Organized citizen advocacy achieved important victories on critical issues of policy by fending off cluster housing ordinances, re-zonings to higher density, HOA-run community septic systems, and other existential threats to the community.  I was proud to play a leadership role in these victories through this blog, the posting of petitions, emails to concerned citizens, and other advocacy.  Over time, those of us in the vanguard of change realized that sustainable change would only be achievable through substantive reform of Milton’s governance processes.  We determined to invest our accumulated political capital in such reform.  Through revisions to Milton’s municipal code, the very architecture of government would be changed to ensure greater fairness, transparency, accountability, and rigor.  (James Madison would be proud.)  Milton would become a model for other cities.  But to effect such a transformation, we needed a caring, tireless and courageous advocate on City Council . . . enter Laura Bentley. 

2017 Campaign Theme: Shifting Power Back to Citizens

In December of 2016, Laura Bentley convened a meeting of six of us to choose a candidate for District 2 Post 1 in the upcoming 2017 elections . . . we chose Laura.  And Laura’s defining campaign plank was “shifting power back to citizens” . . . that is, permanent changes to the framework of government that would survive Laura’s tenure on Council and put Milton on a steady, steeper upward trajectory . . . defying the downward pull of special interests and personality politics.  Within the rule of law, the prerogatives of citizens would reign supreme.  Most importantly, Milton would actually follow its laws (and long-established zoning practice) in only granting variances for minor discrepancies that met all 4 tests for hardship (prescribed in Milton’s zoning laws). 

To effect such reform, we knew that Laura would need a landslide victory.  Through various platforms, an appeal was made to volunteers and voters.  Thankfully, citizens answered our clarion call to action, enthusiastically contributing in various ways to Laura’s candidacy.  The groundswell for good governance was undeniable . . . Laura captured 71+% of the vote, defeating a well-financed, politically-experienced incumbent who had been on council since Milton’s founding.  The investment of our hard-earned political capital had paid off at the polls.  Good governance was within grasp . . . Laura surely would make it happen . . . citizens were clearly behind her . . . Laura’s election was mandate for change . . . Laura would be unstoppable.

But alas, it was not meant to be.  To the great dismay of her supporters, within 3 months of her election, Laura disavowed the core principles of the citizens’ movement that elected her.  In the context of her support for a multitude of variances (28 in total for 3 separate properties) at Birmingham Crossroads, Laura stated to me “Tim, I know how you feel about process, but citizens don’t care about process; they only care about outcomes.  They don’t understand or care about variances.”  (Laura was parroting Joe Lockwood.)  Laura further stated that the City Attorney had advised her that council had “discretion” in granting variances, which Laura interpreted as nearly limitless discretion.  (Interestingly, the City Attorney asserted otherwise in the Crossroads hearings, stating that Milton’s ordinances do not allow granting of variances to improve outcomes and advised—in lawyer speak—against approving the very variances that Laura supported. Click on the below link to hear Jarrard’s guidance.)  Laura’s flip-flop on variances (and more broadly on re-architecting government), whereby she wholeheartedly adopted the stance of her 2017 opponent, caused a permanent rupture in Laura’s relationship with me and many other staunch supporters.

City Attorney’s Advising Against Granting Variances

And so it was that Laura became untethered from principles of good governance and alienated from most of her supporters.  Milton’s politics quickly reverted to the old ways.  Nothing substantive has been accomplished to fundamentally change the architecture of government, to further good governance, or (in Laura’s words) to “shift power back to citizens.”  In fact, in many respects, Milton governance has regressed since I became involved 6 years ago.  For example, earlier in 2021, the Charter Commission, which previously met every 5 years and was one of the few checks on Council power, was disbanded by City Council.  This fundamental change to Milton’s charter went virtually unnoticed by citizens.

Milton is Often Not Friendly to Small Businesses

This brings me back to The Painted Horse.  On Monday night, Laura (and Paul Moore) led the charge against the Painted Horse.  For 3+ hours, City Council mercilessly pencil-whipped Milton’s alcohol ordinance.  Some 100 changes were considered by Council.  The result is a complex and convoluted alcohol ordinance that likely will drag Milton into a legal quagmire about what sorts of entertainment/recreational venues are acceptable in Milton . . . a most unadmirable legacy bequeathed to citizens by Ms. Bentley.  And council’s actions beg a number of questions.  Is it really Council’s role to wallow in the details and write ordinances?  Or rather isn’t Council’s role to provide guidance to staff and then hold them accountable for writing sensible ordinances?  Of course, it must be remembered that a farm-winery is a by-right use established under state law.  Accordingly, is it reasonable to suppose that a court will uphold an alcohol ordinance (or other measures) clearly intended to subvert state law and effectively ban farm-wineries in Milton?  Will Council Members Bentley, Moore, et al dip into their pockets to cover the legal expenses for the City and the Painted Horse should a court rule against Milton’s interference?  Consider that Milton’s alcohol ordinance includes a ridiculous provision that prohibits Painted Horse patrons from straying more than 20 feet from the tasting room building (and enjoying the beauty of the farm with its vineyards).  The 20-foot adjacency restriction appears an unreasonable encumbrance, meant (along with other interference) by Lilliputian members of Council to tie down and tangle up The Painted Horse and to carry out a personal vendetta against the owners.

Unfortunately, the Painted Horse saga is a sad reminder that Laura’s election did not result in shifting power back to citizens and that good governance continues to elude Milton.  However, I suppose there is a certain measure of poetic justice in the fact that a co-operator of The Painted Horse, Juliette Johnson, will succeed Ms. Bentley as the District 2, Post 1 City Council representative.  Perhaps, Painted Horse’s owner, Pam Jackson, will run against and displace the last remaining representative of Milton’s Old Guard (and other District 2 representative) Paul Moore (who political slithering dates back to the City’s first election when he was a candidate).  Based on her background, Ms. Jackson seems a smart, accomplished, and courageous professional and business owner . . . just the sort of person we need on council.  And, of course, Milton certainly has a storied reputation for ejecting misbehaving Council members (or else prompting them not to run to run for re-election to avoid certain defeat at the ballot box).  I remain hopeful.

Advocating For a Break With Milton’s Political Past,

Tim

Note: In future posts, I will speak to 1) Paul Moore’s central role in past and present dysfunction in the Milton City government and 2) City’s Manager Krokoff’s failure in his basic responsibilities as chief executive at City Hall.

District 2 Council Members: Posturing as Protectors of the People and Promoters of Principle and Process

Tonight’s City Council meeting agenda includes issues having impact on two local businesses:  The Painted Horse and Billy Allen’s Piano Bar.  And these issues shine a bright light on a sad state of affairs in Milton.  Unfortunately, the misbehavior of Milton’s two District 2 Council Members, Paul Moore and Laura Bentley, is bearing bitter fruit for the community.  Citizens’ trust in Milton’s City government is waning (notwithstanding the City’s non-stop stream of look-good/feel good Facebook posts).  And increasingly, it is difficult to distinguish local politics from Washington politics.  This loss of confidence in Milton’s municipal government was both predicted and predictable.  Both Paul and Laura led the variance parade at Birmingham Crossroads . . . with 28 variances and a bastardized special use permit granted in 4 separate hearings over the span of less than a year.  In the case of Matilda’s,  Paul and Laura cavalierly disregarded both the rule of law and citizens’ concerns in favor of their own and their friends’ personal interests . . . to the detriment of the community. 

Now the results of Council’s poor decisions are metastasizing elsewhere in Milton.  Other applicants before council are demanding equal treatment—aka fairness.  And they make a good (and probably legally sound) case for such like treatment.  You see, Council’s approval of Matilda’s at Birmingham Crossroads set the bar very low for what is accepted and acceptable in Milton . . . “open borders” for all sorts of businesses.  The owners of the Painted Horse (a winery) and now Billy Allen’s (a piano bar) are asking for (much) less than was granted to Matilda’s.  And when you contrast The Painted Horse with Matilda’s, you see the obvious illogic and incoherence in Milton City Council’s land use approach.  After all, The Painted Horse owners are saving an equestrian property, operating a by-right business, regulating alcohol consumption, and abiding by Milton’s noise ordinance.  This is in stark contrast to Matilda’s, which is located on a marginal property (bisected by high voltage transmission lines), operates under a bastardized (by 12 variances) festival use permit, is BYOB, and pumps out music that is 15 DB above Milton’s approved noise limits and sometimes can be heard 1.5 miles away.  The “intensity of use” (a term of art at Council) is much lower at The Painted Horse.  It strikes me that farm-wineries actually 1) offer a wonderful opportunity to save equestrian properties and 2) align well with Milton’s rural character.  The same cannot be reasonably asserted about Matilda’s.  Farm wineries might actually provide apposite means for Milton to distinguish itself in Atlanta’s north metro area.

Realizing they’ve lost the trust of Milton’s voters, Paul and Laura are now posturing as protectors of the people and as promoters of principles and process.  Their worship at the altar of good governance is unconvincing and shameful.   Long ago, both Paul and Laura ceded the moral high ground and opted instead for the political low road, a well-worn path in Milton that has often led to defeat at the ballot box (or to politicians wisely choosing not to seek re-election).  Let’s get real.  In light of their slavish support for Matilda’s, Paul and Laura’s opposition to The Painted Horse has little to do with the people, principles, or process.  Their opposition appears transparently personal and their goal seems nothing short of running the Painted Horse owners out of business. 

Paul Moore Campaigning For City Council at Matilda’s (2019)

It is interesting to note that in re-purposing a use permit with 12 variances for Matilda’s and then taking a subsequent strict stance against any additional music or other entertainment venues, Paul and Laura have effectively created a well-protected monopoly for Matilda’s in Milton.  It is also interesting to note that many of Paul’s allies have privately acknowledged that Paul erred in his blind advocacy for Matilda’s and in his blatant circumvention of due process, but excuse him by stating that his was a “crime of passion” . . . akin to a mama bear protecting its cubs.  This is nonsense.  Paul knew better but didn’t care.  And unfortunately (but predictably), City leadership turned a blind eye to ethical and due process violations. Lastly, it is interesting to note that Paul and Laura reached out to residents near The Painted Horse to understand their concerns, but Paul and Laura never engaged citizens that were to be impacted by Matilda’s–perhaps because nearby residents were nearly unanimous in their opposition.

I encourage citizens to attend tonight’s hearing.  It should be a good show.  Political hypocrisy at its finest.  If you can’t make it, following is a link for watching the meeting virtually.

In closing, it is worth noting that come January 2022, Milton will have three new City Council members.  I am hopeful.  These prospective Council Members would be well-advised to closely watch tonight’s hearings and learn some valuable lessons . . . a principled process is the only path to good outcomes and to restoring trust and confidence in local government.

Advocating For Good Governance,

Tim

Note: I want to emphasize that I was not opposed to Matilda’s being re-located to Milton. My objections were to a circumvention of due process and the rule of law; re-purposing a use permit with myriad variances; and total disregard for the concerns of nearby residents. I believe that a suitable home for Matilda’s in Milton could have been found by following principled process. This would have involved creating a use permit for music venues in Milton, assuming citizens wanted music venues in AG-1 zoned areas of Milton. It would have meant finding a location that did not require variances that remove basic protections to the community. It would have required clear support from the community, especially those most impacted by the music venue. And finally, it would have followed an ethical, transparent, fair, and rigorous approval process.