COVINGTON -- Supporters of Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter met with Mayor Ronnie Johnston Wednesday at City Hall to "try to pull all together and get on the same track," in the words of Rev. Sam Perryman, a member of the homeless shelter board of directors.
Perryman said he was disturbed by comments made by the mayor that there are problems with the board and there is negative public perception of the shelter.
Perryman said the shelter has faced criticism over the years and said that based on news articles, it appears the mayor is now critical of the shelter and "we need to get with you as the mayor to understand how you see our organization."
Perryman, Lett and other supporters of the shelter called for Johnston to make a retraction of his comments at recent board meetings, including his statements that "If there's nothing we're going to do, it's a slow death;" as well as his stating he would not personally ask the public for more donations given that his calls for reorganization and transparency have not been heeded; as well as that there is a cloud hanging over the shelter, referring to negative public perception.
Johnston has urged the shelter board to undergo an audit and make finances more transparent to the public.
Perryman said that while not all board meetings can make every meeting, they are continually informed about operations at the shelter and regularly see financial statements.
"Our entire board has given Pastor (Clara) Lett, our executive director, a full vote of confidence. We have no question about what she has done, what she can do and what she will do," he said.
He also noted that, "This organization is only accountable in terms of financial statements and financial matters to the shelter's board, the state of Georgia and to the federal government, not to the city of Covington, not to the mayor."
Johnston said that he is learning that in public life, when newspapers are present and recording what you say, things can get taken out of context. The Citizen stands by its reporting of the recent board of directors meetings at the homeless shelter.
Johnston said his frustration has been with the board, not Lett, noting that there has only been one quorum of members since he started attending meetings in October at the request of former mayor and board member Sam Ramsey.
Johnston said he came to his first board meeting understanding that the shelter was in crisis, with utilities already overdue. He said he asked the city to extend the cutoff day in order to keep the shelter open, for which he said he faced criticism from some City Council members because, he said, he has learned that the mayor does not have the authority to make such an exception.
At his first meeting, he said he was frustrated by what appeared to be a lack of concern and action by the board. Johnston said when he saw 10 to 15 kids at the shelter, he was motivated to ask the public for donations to keep the utilities on.
"In my mind this is a crisis, where is everybody, this place has got a serious challenge, the electricity could be cut off, why isn't this a serious concern," he said.
Some in attendance reported that some donors have stopped giving and volunteers have backed off following news reports of Johnston's comments and that residents at the shelter now believe the mayor is in charge.
Johnston said he never stated the shelter was not being run right, but stood by his statements that there is a public perception problem that needs to be addressed.
He did apologize for anything he said that was perceived as attacking Lett's character.
Ramsey said he, too, has been concerned about a lack of quorums. In his year on the board, he said there are some members he's never seen.
"We've got to do a better job as a board, operating as a board should," he said, noting that there is a different level of accountability involved when "you start asking the public for money."
Ramsey said if not for Johnston's involvement, the shelter might have had to close down.
"He hasn't said one word during the whole process that I wasn't saying, 'Amen, Amen,'" he said.
Ramsey reported good news: He spoke with city officials earlier that day and they agreed to consolidate the multiple meters at the shelter into one meter, which should result in savings, he said.
Perryman said the board met earlier Wednesday and "we all pledged to do better," make an assessment and figure out how to move forward.
"We'll work on it; and let us invite you back," he said to Johnston.
Johnston said he applauds the board for deciding to go through that process. "I am fully supportive of that and if I can help with any of that I would be happy to help with any of that," he said.
Lett ended the meeting by thanking the mayor and said that forgiveness is needed to heal.
"It's wonderful to know we can come together and stand for the same cause and the same purpose," she said.