Why some Lula residents want to recall Mayor Joe Thomas and Councilman Gene Bramlett

Jan. 24—At least three Lula residents plan to move forward with a plan to unseat Councilman Gene Bramlett and Mayor Joe Thomas through a recall.

Details on the recall process were requested from City Attorney Joey Homans on Jan. 17, just before a regular meeting when long-time Lula resident Robert Grizzle and local business owner Amanda Browning went before council and condemned Thomas and Bramlett during public comments.

Browning told council members that she and other business owners in Lula have faced acts of "intimidation" and "retaliation" from Thomas and "his known associates." Emphasizing the two investigations into the city's elected officials in a six-month timeframe, she expressed disappointment in both Thomas and Bramlett and claimed the mayor has "tarnished" Lula's reputation for the foreseeable future.

"I have never been more disappointed in our mayor than I am right now," she said. "In the history of Lula, we have never had a 45-page investigation. We've never had sexual harassment reported, and we have never been put in the Gainesville Times for so many disconcerting stories," Browning said, spurring a wave of applause from more than half of the 40-plus residents in attendance.

Grizzle again called for the resignations of Code Enforcement Officer Doug Forrester and Bramlett, citing allegations from the first investigation into the city's code enforcement office that accused Bramlett of taking photos of Grizzle's property and his two adolescent grandchildren while they were in a swimming pool at his home last summer — something he said his wife Loretta witnessed.

A day after the meeting, Grizzle reiterated his call for resignations of Forrester and Bramlett, though he added Thomas to that list as well, admitting frustration that Thomas has continued to support Bramlett since the allegations emerged.

"(Thomas) needs to resign," Grizzle said. "He does not seem to be the one in control."

Bramlett again maintained his innocence, denied the accusations and said he welcomes anyone with evidence suggesting that he was the one who took those photos to come forward and "get this thing settled."

"I never made a complaint (about Grizzle) to (code enforcement)," Bramlett said. "I didn't take any pictures of anyone, anywhere. I just asked a simple question as to how Grizzle's property was zoned."

"The only thing I want in the City of Lula is that everybody is treated fairly," he said. "I am for every citizen in this city...I want to help the city move forward."

Communication is key to resolving disagreements, Bramlett said, and stated that Grizzle has refused to discuss disagreements between them — something Grizzle acknowledged.

"I've got nothing to say to (Bramlett)," Grizzle said. "I'm not going to bargain with him, no, he's a pervert."

Bramlett was accused of making an inappropriate comment and unwanted physical contact with a female employee in October.

Lula City Council and the mayor underwent sexual harassment training after the employee's complaint of sexual harassment against Bramlett led to a $3,500 investigation paid for by the city. Bramlett has denied the accusations against him, and no further action was recommended or taken following the investigation.

Regarding a potential recall, Bramlett declined to comment and said he'll wait to see what unfolds.

Recall process

An email Browning sent to The Times on Jan. 18 showed that she, Grizzle and a resident named Joe Johnson received details on the recall process from Councilman Tony Cornett, who said he inquired about the procedure at the request of his constituents.

"I was responding to the inquiries that the citizens had given me," Cornett said.

Before the process can proceed, the Hall County Board of Elections must first determine whether a recall is warranted, assessing questions of misconduct, illegality or malfeasance. If a petition is issued and signed by at least 100 residents — 10% of registered voters in Lula — it then goes back before the board for consideration and possible certification.

If certified, a special recall election will be called in Lula. The public offices in question "shall immediately become vacant" if more than 50% of ballots cast by voters are in favor of recall.

A petition can be denied by the board if it fails to meet criteria or if signatures are deemed invalid.

Grizzle said he plans to spearhead the push to recall Thomas and Bramlett, and that he'll look to rally support from church congregations of registered voters throughout the city.

Grizzle touted "plenty of support" he has from people who stand behind him. If needed, he believes he can gather up to 400 signatures from like-minded residents.

"We've got the paperwork to do it right...I'll have my attorneys on it...(to remove) the mayor and Gene — which then we'll get Doug Forrester (out) while we're at it," he said.

Problems at downtown business

Browning, who said she's contemplating a run for mayor, stated she has 100 people who'd sign the petition just in her inbox on Facebook. She elaborated on claims she made at the Jan. 17 meeting, stating that she feels she's been targeted by Thomas and his allies.

About a year ago, she explained, a tire store and bed liner specialist moved into a building beside Amanda's Farm to Fork, the restaurant she's owned downtown for five years.

When the new store began to emit noxious odor and fumes throughout her restaurant, according to Browning, she said the place became undesirable for anyone looking to dine in.

She contacted the city's code enforcement officer and discussed the matter with city officials to no avail.

Now, after being forced to relocate her restaurant to White County, Browning in part blames Thomas for failing to address the situation, which she said he'd promised to resolve before he was elected.

"(Code enforcement) did everything within the guidelines to try to help us, but (Forrester) needed more support on his end to try to do something," she said. "I feel like being a business in Lula — having been a business for five years before that new business moved in — that they would've fought harder to keep us or tried to resolve it, and it was never resolved."

Thomas countered Browning's claim, noting this was an existing issue between the two establishments before he took office.

"I inherited that problem," Thomas said. "We have not ignored the problem. We have talked to Amanda as a city. We have talked to (the businesses) as a city. I haven't gotten totally involved in that. I don't think it helps any if I get involved. We've tried to help them work out a solution and things like that."

"We want businesses to succeed," he added. "We want to eat...we like eating in town. That's what we want here."

The mayor, acknowledging the current rift between Lula's residents, called for unity through their common belief in Christianity.

"The town that prays together, stays together. I had them praying. We all prayed together. For me, that was a start to healing this city," Thomas said, referring to his decision to start Tuesday's regular meeting with "The Lord's Prayer."

"I'm not sure what it's going to take to bring us all together, but prayer is going to get us started," he said.

Cornett said he'd support a recall of Thomas and Bramlett if it aligned with the will of voters.

"It would be improper of me to block or impede their ability to remedy the situation through the mechanism that has been afforded to them," he said.

Councilman Garnett Smith said he would also support a recall of the two men if a majority of residents voted to remove them from office.

"I would (support) a recall of them both if it came down to it," Smith said.

Councilwoman Denise Shockley declined to issue a statement on the matter, and Councilman Chip Horst could not be reached for comment.

Resident Roy Hall defended both Bramlett and Thomas, describing the spectacle of a recall in Lula as political theater.

"I think it's unwarranted — a lot of people elected them," Hall said. "People that were for the (former) mayor are perceived as most of the citizens. This is political, and this is how (they) try to make the opponent look bad so (they) look better. I really believe that's what's been happening."