This article includes editorialized content and commentary from first hand experiences.
It’s almost Election Day in the City of Guyton and Mayor Russ Deen and council members Marshall Reiser and Hersula Pelote are all seeking re-election and asking voters for a chance to serve another four years.
I thought it would be a good time to take a trip down memory lane and recount what’s happened over the last (almost) four years under the current administration.
An out-of-control police department, abuse of their authority, violations of the Open Meetings and Open Records Acts, attacks on the public, misuse of SPLOST funds, veils of secrecy, higher taxes, and wasteful spending, among other things, top the list of accolades these elected officials have to put on their resumes.
Voters should ask themselves if, after seeing this list, do these three deserve another term?
Taxes & Spending
Property taxes have increased, even though the millage rate did not, because the mayor and council did not choose to roll back the mileage rate to an amount that would not result in a tax increase.
Simultaneously, officials have increased the police department budget over three budget years by almost $500,000 despite fewer people calling 911 for help. The PD budget for the small community now tops $722,000. The city manager touted that it was the only department that came in under budget in FY 2022, but the agency also lost half of its force, slashing the personnel line item.
In 2020, for the adoption of FY 2021, the city adopted the budget weeks after the fiscal year began because meetings had to be rescheduled following attempts by city officials to violate the Open Meetings Act and hold illegal meetings.
In a fifteen month period, the city ran up $123,056.92 in legal fees with Oliver Maner.
February 2021 — City officials voted to change the waste management contract. This was sold to the public as a big savings for the city, but it resulted in a monthly increase on taxpayers (included in the monthly water bill) In reality, it was a $40,000 profit for the city straight from the pockets of the citizens.
March 2021 – City officials voted to implement for-profit school zone speed cameras to generate additional revenue. The data since the implementation shows that the number of speeders has not declined since the institution of the cameras, though the revenue for the city has already topped $100,000.
In FY 2022, the city had to transfer $171,000 from reserves to balance the budget.
Misuse of SPLOST Dollars
Fall 2020 – Mayor Russ Deen proposed using SPLOST dollars for prison labor, an act which conflicts with state law on SPLOST use. This conflict was brought to the attention of council ahead of the meeting, in hopes of remedying the situation before the wrong decision was made, but Deen used the council meeting and the city attorney to try to refute the article published ahead of the vote. The council voted to use SPLOST dollars anyway and said if they were flagged by the auditor and they had to go back and undo it, that “wouldn’t be the worst consequence.”
Interestingly, budget documents from subsequent years show the expenditure of prison labor from the general fund, indicating despite the public charade and attempt to discredit the media, the city opted not to use SPLOST dollars for prison labor.
Three years later, however, the mayor and council were still struggling on what SPLOST can be used for, despite partaking in numerous training courses that outline the program.
The city has struggled to keep employees, running through city administrators, clerks, and police officers. At one point, the city lost its administrator, clerk, and solicitor in the same month.
August 2022 — Russ Deen told citizen Jeremiah Chancey that the reason no one wants to work at Guyton Police Department is because people talk about them online.
In 2022, the city voted to give every city employee a Christmas bonus as a ‘thank you’ for their work throughout the year. They voted to refrain from giving one police officer that money after he took a new job set to begin in 2023. An outraged community stepped up and provided that officer with a bonus 5x the size of the city bonus. More on that here.
Summer & Fall 2022 – City officials allowed the GMA-mandated Ethics Committee to become defunct after they did not properly maintain appointments
Allowing the Police Department to Run Amuck with No Accountability
Russ Deen and Marshall Reiser both campaigned in 2019 on reform of the police department and restoring public trust.
Specifically, because of the bad publicity coming out of the agency, they suggested they were open to shutting down the PD and turning over services to the Sheriff’s Office. They did, briefly, but have done nothing since to enhance the public image or keep their promise to make the police department a priority.
The mayor and city council, for the last four years, have allowed the police department to operate outside of its lawful bounds, in a fiscally irresponsible manner, and with a public persona that is embarrassing for the citizens and fellow members of law enforcement.
Supporters of the police department have asked why, if the police department is so out of control, the GBI or Attorney General’s office hasn’t been engaged. The answer is the AG has no jurisdiction and the GBI must be requested by either the mayor or the police chief. So, the bad acts:
The mayor and council allowed the police department to operate without a policy and procedures manual – meaning it was absent of any standard operating procedures and guidelines – for more than 3 years. The public was told for 3 years that it was being reviewed by city attorneys but the final draft published showed a Google doc history indicating the manual was merely copy-pasted from the Valdosta Police Department.
Allowed the police chief to claim the department was 24/7 for more than a year while 911 logs showed the agency more often had someone NOT working than working.
January 2022 – Hired a police officer who was forced out of a neighboring agency for driving a patrol car while under the influence of alcohol.
May 2022 – City officials took no corrective action when a traffic stop was mishandled after a motorist took out a sign in a roundabout and plowed through the Ken’s IGA parking lot.
June 2022 – City officials took no action with the “24/7” police department after the entire PD was AWOL when a murder occurred.
November 2022 — Allowed the police chief and city attorney to publish a memo which blamed the public for the vitriolic tirade made by a Guyton Police Officer. That video included song lyrics such as ‘I hope you get raped by an ape’ and ‘I hope you crash head first into a bus full of retarded kids.’.
Abuse of Authority
July 2020 — Russ Deen and his council issued a mask mandate, which was in conflict with the rules and regulation just one day after Governor Brian Kemp barred local governments from taking action more or less restrictive than any state order on the coronavirus pandemic response. Deen said the mandate ‘was a form of education.’
The community organized a protest in response.
The administration hired a city manager with no contract. The city manager has undergone a total of 0 reviews since she was hired. Her personnel file contains nothing but her job application and despite being out of the workforce for more than a decade and having no city government experience, she makes $75,000 annually. If you’re wondering if it’s standard to have a contract, the previous city manager under the same administration did. So why doesn’t Maketa Brown?
April 2022 – Officials directed the city attorney to pen a letter to a member of the media, me, making veiled threats of a lawsuit for defamation against the police department because the media publication published data that suggested the police chief had misrepresented the work it was doing. The media outlet had obtained the data from the Effingham County 911 center after the City of Guyton refused to provide it. Not only was the data published verifiable and accurate, it is legally impossible to “defame” a government agency, illustrating that the letter was merely an attempt to intimidate.
April 2022 – Deen emailed a journalist to instruct her to take down critical comments made about the police department
April 2022 — Russ Deen used an opportunity at a GMA conference for elected officials to probe a state attorney on how he could limit public information requests from people in the community because they were “vexatious” and “annoying.” The trip to the conference was paid for by tax dollars and the GMA attorney informed Deen, publicly, that even “annoying” people are well within their rights under the law to request as many records as they wish. You can hear his comments here.
July 2022 – Russ Deen and Marshall Reiser sought a building permit for their mini storage business in the city of Guyton. They did not pay for the permit, like everyone else is required to do, until an open records request was filed seeking proof of payment. The permit had already been issued but the check was written three days after the ORR was filed.
November 2023 – The ethics committee dismissed a complaint against Russ Deen because they did not believe he was acting in his mayoral capacity when, at the end of a council meeting, he ‘tried to attack a citizen’ with the cane of a councilman, according to the complaint.
Silencing the Public
Spring 2020 – Deen removed Andy Harville from the Planning & Zoning Committee because he asked questions about the city agendas. It was a huge change in his position on Harville from just four months prior.
July 2020 – During a zoom council meeting, Citizen Scott Thompson asked Russ Deen a question and was not allowed to complete the question. Russ told him his “input was not necessary” and disconnected Thompson from the zoom call. You can listen to that here.
April 2022 – Despite going through all the proper channels to be placed on the agenda and meeting all the requirements laid out on the city website, I was denied the opportunity to address council in an open meeting about a letter sent to me by the city attorney.
June 2022 — Russ Deen told Citizen Karen Keech to “get the hell out of city hall.” He admitted to doing so in an open meeting a few days later.
June 2022 — Citizen Theodore Hamby was expelled from a council meeting by Russ Deen because Hamby, during the public comment portion of the meeting, discussed his disdain for the way Deen talked to Keech. The removal of Hamby is in conflict with the law on open meetings and a number of court rulings in Georgia and across the country, all of which state people cannot be silenced because of their viewpoints. Specifically, the case law requires that once the public forum is opened for comment, it must be open to all, regardless of subject matter.
Fall 2022 — After proclaiming that his ‘word for the year’ in 2021 was ‘communication,’ Russ Deen eliminated the ability for citizens and the public to ask questions, share information, or comment on the City of Guyton’s official Facebook page because, at times, criticisms were made by members of the public. The page is now a ‘one way street.’
September 2022 – After declaring publicly that there was a need for city council workshops to allow the public more opportunity to bring ideas and concerns to council, Mayor Deen eliminated council meeting workshops because the subject matter was oftentimes critical of mayor and council actions.
October 2022 — The mayor and council changed the council meeting rules to only allow citizens the opportunity to speak on agenda items during public meetings. The rules also stated “no personal attacks,” which conflicts with case law in federal courts prohibiting governments from banning citizens from offering criticisms, even if those criticisms are insulting. Explanation of why that is unlawful here
The “financial transparency” tab on the website has never worked since it was created under this administration. Documents that should be readily available to the public have, for four years, been subject to open records request, taking days – if not weeks – to provide and often at a cost to citizens.
The city has violated the Open Records Act countless times, prompting intervention by the Attorney General’s office. The results were in favor of transparency, not the city’s position.
September 2022 – The city stopped live streaming council meetings on Facebook page, despite having the infrastructure in place to do so since 2020.
Summer 2023 – The city stopped posting the pre-recorded council meetings on Facebook page and began charging for copies of the recorded video if someone requested it in an open records request
June 2023 – As of June 6, 2023, the city was two years behind on its compliance with state law in submitting audits and budgets to the state for publication.
June 2023 – After providing the records of the city attorney monthly invoices at no cost for more than a year, the city began charging for the 3-page document that is orbited to them from the city attorney every month.