Backing out of retreat would cost $4K

COVINGTON -- The city's contract with Brasstown Valley Resort and Spa has a nearly $4,000 cancellation fee attached to it, Councilman Mike Whatley revealed Monday night.

Following a resident's request that the council reconsider the retreat location, Whatley stated that a month ago, during the same meeting where he criticized the media for coverage of the retreat, he had originally intended to propose a new location, but changed his mind after learning of the cancellation fee.

"We checked into getting out of the contract and that would have cost, plus or minus, $4,000. We would have gotten $130 for our efforts. I don't think that would have been smart either," he said.

Pat Griggs, director of conference services for Brasstown Valley Resort and Spa, said a standard cancellation fee for a group is $3,924 within 90 days of the event.

The council approved the retreat on Dec. 21, and the contract was signed by Mayor Kim Carter on Dec. 30, less than 90 days from the start of the retreat on March 17, meaning there would have been no opportunity to cancel without paying the fee.

Personnel Director Ronnie Cowan said a block of rooms is on hold at the resort, but individual reservations have not yet been made. He said he does not know how many people will be attending or how many will stay at the hotel.

In December, Cowan told the Citizen the mayor, council and retreat facilitator will stay the first night, with the city manager and three division department heads joining for the remaining two nights.

The cost to stay at the hotel is $109 per room per night, not including meals or other expenses. If Cowan's initial estimates remain accurate, assuming each person stays in a separate room, the cost for the stay would be approximately $3,500 -- nearly $500 less than the cancellation fee.

Councilmen Chris Smith and Keith Dalton have publicly stated that they will not stay at the hotel and will pay their own way. Cowan said he didn't know if the city would be required to pay for their rooms anyway.

He said the cancellation fee was not considered when the selection committee made the decision on the retreat location. The committee was formed by Mayor Kim Carter and included Whatley and Councilwomen Janet Goodman and Ocie Franklin.

"We just looked at the cost up front. That's what most people do when they're booking a hotel, is look at the cost up front," he said, adding that after the council approved the location, the contract was sent to the city and signed.

The contract states that seven rooms are on hold for the night of March 17 and 15 on hold for March 18 and 19. The city must provide a final reservation list by Thursday, which is 30 days prior to the retreat, the contract states.

The information regarding the cancellation fee was provided at the council meeting Monday night following comments by Chris Jueschke, who does not live within city limits, but came to ask the council to reconsider its position on the retreat.

Jueschke held up a mirror as he began to talk, "as a symbol of reflection," he said.

"The City Council has made a naive error in judging the symbolism of the location of the upcoming planning retreat. It is not too late to correct an error of innocence," Jueschke said. "The council still has the opportunity to be magnanimous and to concede, even if you don't believe it, that an error was made, but that on the basis of enlightened leadership and out of respect for public opinion, the location will be moved to a more modest but perfectly adequate local facility. Everyone can be a hero, or 'shero,' as the case may be.

"The alternative is to stand by the original decision regardless of the consequence that your entire term of service will be remembered and characterized as the city council that went to a resort on the taxpayer's dime," he added.

Jueschke said the amount of the cancellation fee "raises as many questions as it might resolve."

Whatley told Jueschke that he couldn't see throwing away taxpayer money by canceling the retreat.

"It would be just like throwing $4,000 in the fireplace and watching it burn," he said.

"A retreat is not going somewhere and getting in a hot tub," Whatley said, adding that the council will be making important decisions on behalf of the city.

"It's been proven by smarter men and women than me that a retreat works better when you do it in a neutral location," he said, adding that's why the council chose the Brasstown facility.

"Maybe next year we'll look at it differently. I know I will. Once bitten, twice shy," he added.

The council is expected to arrive at the resort in Young Harris on March 17 and leave March 20. The event is being facilitated by the Centre for Strategic Management in Conyers at a cost of $5,000. The retreat qualifies as a public meeting just like regular council meetings.