Request by resident of Goshen is mishandled

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A Goshen resident's request for a copy of a $50 million stimulus application affecting her neighborhood was mishandled by the Housing and Community Development Department, city officials acknowledged Wednesday.

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Becky Shealy (from left), Martha Reynnells and Trisha Sprouse are among Goshen residents concerned about how a development funded with $21 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Neighborhood Stabilization Program II might affect the neighborhood .  Mrs. Shealy filed the records request that was denied.  Annette M. Drowlette/Staff
Annette M. Drowlette/Staff
Becky Shealy (from left), Martha Reynnells and Trisha Sprouse are among Goshen residents concerned about how a development funded with $21 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Neighborhood Stabilization Program II might affect the neighborhood . Mrs. Shealy filed the records request that was denied.

But that might be putting it mildly.

According to both the Georgia Attorney General's office and Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson, the department blatantly violated the state open records law.

Mr. Hudson said the department broke the law twice - once when a manager told Becky Shealy she couldn't have the document, and again when she was given an incomplete copy a day later.

Attorney General's spokesman Russ Willard concurs that the law was violated the moment Housing and Economic Recovery Act Manager Shawn Edwards told Mrs. Shealy by e-mail Aug. 10 that he wouldn't give her the application, and that she could ask her questions at a public forum held at the Municipal Building the following day.

"Until the meeting tomorrow at the Commission Chambers," Mr. Edwards wrote, "we have been advised that the information disseminated needs to be limited and that comments need to be restricted."

Mr. Willard said a desire to control the flow of information isn't a valid exception to the open records law.

"It appears that this is a blatant violation," he said. "I don't think there's any question that it is."

A call to City Attorney Chiquita Johnson was returned by staff attorney Kenneth Bray, who said he looked into the situation and doesn't believe the law was broken.

"That was not the right way to respond," he said of the HERA manager, "but he did give her the information."

Mr. Bray said he's not sure Mrs. Shealy made a verbal request Aug. 6, as she said she did and as one of Mr. Edwards' e-mails alludes to. Regardless, she received a copy of the application Aug. 11, which, as the law requires, is within three business days.

She didn't complain about it being incomplete until she addressed the Augusta Commission as a Goshen representative Tuesday, and the full application is being sent to her, he said.

Mr. Bray pointed to a passage in the open records act allowing public agencies five days to correct errors in responses.

But Mr. Hudson said he's misinterpreting the code section. It refers to errors in legal reasons given for withholding exempt records, he said.

"You can change the reason that you didn't give the documents," Mr. Hudson said. "That doesn't forgive the fact that they did not meet the three-day deadline."

Mrs. Shealy is one of hundreds of Goshen residents concerned about how a development funded with $21 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Neighborhood Stabilization Program II might affect the neighborhood. She said she was only trying to educate herself, that she knows little about Section 8 or HUD housing, and she wanted to see what the city and developers were requesting from Washington.

"I've always been taught that you get the facts before you act," she said. "We want our local government to know that we are educated, that we are on top of things, and we're going to be in their faces."

When she made her first request, Mr. Edwards answered some questions and pointed her to some helpful links on the HUD Web site, Mrs. Shealy said. But he told her Aug. 10 that he was "not in a position to share the NSP2 application with you at this time."

Who might have advised him that "information disseminated needs to be limited" remains a mystery. His supervisor, department director Chester Wheeler, said it wasn't him, and he doesn't know that anyone told Mr. Edwards that. Mr. Edwards didn't return phone messages Tuesday or Wednesday, and an e-mail seeking comment resulted in a response saying The Chronicle could pick up a copy of the stimulus application at his office.

After being denied the document, Mrs. Shealy sought help from Commissioner Don Grantham, who made a call to Housing and Community Development, then told Mrs. Shealy she could pick up the application the following day. The packet she received Aug. 11 contained a PowerPoint presentation, a legal notice, a copy of HUD regulations and a 32-page portion of the application that she knew was incomplete because it was missing signature pages.

The copy obtained by The Chronicle on Wednesday totaled 69 pages. The part Mrs. Shealy received is the narrative, and among the sections left out were the actual application form, signature sheets signed by Mr. Wheeler and Mayor Deke Copenhaver, a disclosure report and letters from Georgia Bank & Trust Co. and Capitol City Bank & Trust Co.

Though Mr. Grantham questioned how pertinent the omitted sections might have been, he said they shouldn't have been withheld.

"She requested it. She should have been given it," he said. "That's the bottom line."

Mr. Grantham said the incident might point to a need for employee training on how to respond to requests for documents.

"It wouldn't hurt to have a workshop on it," he said. "A lot of them probably don't even know."

Other commissioners seemed more dismayed that they didn't find out about the application before it went to Washington, much less get a copy of it, though they agreed it should have been given to a resident who asked for it.

"You know something's wrong with that," Betty Beard said.

"Welcome to what we've been talking about for the past year-and-a-half," Corey Johnson said. "Policies and procedures. There's a lot of things that are supposed to be happening that aren't."

City Administrator Fred Russell said that, per city policy, Mr. Edwards should have referred Mrs. Shealy to the Law Department.

"Not having looked at the e-mails," he said, "that wasn't the correct answer. The correct answer should have been, 'I'll refer you to the attorney.'"

Asked if that policy is set forth in writing, he referred questions to Ms. Johnson, who has had department heads routing records requests through her office since she took over in early 2008.

Both Mr. Hudson and Mr. Willard said readily available records should be provided upon request. Mr. Hudson said documents such as meeting minutes and, say, a controversial pending stimulus application, are clearly open to the public and shouldn't have to go through the city attorney.

"No mystery there," he said. "No rocket science involved."

Mr. Willard said that while the Augusta employee violated the law, he could not say whether a misdemeanor was committed. An open records violation has to be "knowing and willful," meaning ignorance of the law is essentially a defense.

"It may be that whoever was responding to her didn't understand the law," he said.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

Background: Under Georgia law, government agencies have three days to respond to open records requests. Goshen resident Becky Shealy asked for a copy of a stimulus application two weeks ago and has yet to receive the full document from the city. Officials say it's in the mail.

CORRESPONDENCE

Excerpts from Aug. 10 e-mail correspondence between Goshen resident Becky Shealy and Housing and Economic Recovery Act Manager Shawn Edwards:

Mr. Edwards: "Good Morning, Becky, I wanted to make sure that I touched basis (sic) with you before tomorrow's meeting as I am sure you and several members of the community will be there. Although I am not in a position to share the NSP2 application with you at this time, you will be able to ask questions pertaining to any aspect of it that affects you neighborhood an/or Richmond County in general ..."

Mrs. Shealy: "Good Morning Shawn, I hope this email finds you doing well on this Monday morning. I did receive the Notice of Meeting last Thursday and I thank you very much for the email ... I do, however, have a question. Why am I not privy to the NSP2 application? Is this not public record?

Mr. Edwards: "As it was explained to me Mrs. Shealy, although the use of funds noted in the application is public record, the public notice of funds intention was sufficient to meet HUD requirement at this time which took place through the Augusta Chronicle in July. Until the meeting tomorrow in the Commission Chambers we have been advised that the information disseminated needs to be limited and that comments need to be restricted. At that meeting however you will have ample opportunity to discuss the aspects of the application pertinent to your neighborhood ..."

Mrs. Shealy: "Shawn, Will we have the opportunity to review the application tomorrow evening? I have been told there are requirements for these monies that need to be met. For example, there is a transportation clause in the application. If we don't know about these requirements, how do we know what questions to ask? I am not trying to be obstinate, I just need to know I am not being blind-sighted (sic)."

Mr. Edwards: "First, let me say that it is not that the information in the application will not be made available for the citizens in the affected areas as those moving in as future potential buyers and those already living in these communities have a right to fully understand the ramifications of the investment of HUD funding in their neighborhoods. It is however, that some miscommunication has occurred and we have found in the past that it is best to address concerns in person, in such arenas as the Public Hearing scheduled for Tuesday evening, to clarify information going out ... I have copied my assistant director and program administrator on this email so that they may remain abreast to concerns from the community and that we may be better prepared to address all concerns on tomorrow."

TIMELINE

Aug 5: Mrs. Shealy, researching how the $50 million application would affect the Goshen community, calls the city's Housing and Community Development Department and leaves a message for Housing and Economic Recovery Act Manager Shawn Edwards.

Aug. 6: Mr. Edwards returns the call, and they discuss her concerns about the application . Mr. Edwards refers her to links on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Web site.

Mrs. Shealy asks for a copy of the application. Mr. Edwards says he will have to run the request by his superiors.

Aug. 7: The city's Housing and Community Development office is closed .

Aug. 10: Mr. Edwards e-mails Mrs. Shealy early that morning and denies her request, telling her to save her questions for a public forum on the Goshen issue being held the following night. It is at this point, according to the state Attorney General's Office and Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson, that the open records law was first violated.

The two also speak by phone, discussing the Aug. 11 meeting at the Municipal Building and another Aug. 13 in Goshen.

Mrs. Shealy, still trying to obtain the application, calls both of her commissioners, Jimmy Smith and Don Grantham.

Mr. Grantham returns her call, and she tells him Housing and Community Development won't let her see the stimulus application.

Mr. Grantham calls the department and talks to Director Chester Wheeler. Within 20 minutes of their first conversation, he calls Mrs. Sheal y again and tells her she can pick up the application the following morning.

Aug. 11: Mrs. Shealy goes to Housing and Community Development on Laney-Walker Boulevard and picks up a brown manila envelope. Inside is a 32-page narrative section from the application, a copy of the department's Power Point presentation, a copy of a notice published in The Chronicle and a copy of HUD regulations on public notice and comment.

Because she did not receive the complete application, this is the second time the law was violated, according to Mr. Hudson. Not included in the packet was the actual application form, signature sheets signed by Mr. Wheeler and Mayor Deke Copenhaver, a disclosure report and letters from two banks.

The entire application, obtained by The Chronicle on Wednesday, is 69 pages.

Tuesday: Mrs. Shealy, speaking as a representative of Goshen, tells the commission she's happy they've voted to table "ratification" of the application until the city finds out whether the funds have been awarded. She then brings up her difficulties in obtaining a complete copy of the application. Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason tells City Administrator Fred Russell to accommodate her.

Wednesday: City officials put a copy of the stimulus application in the mail to be delivered to Mrs. Shealy.

Sources: Becky Shealy; copies of e-mails provided by Mrs. Shealy; packet of documents provided to Mrs. Shealy by Housing and Community Development; full stimulus application obtained from Housing and Community Development; Commissioner Don Grantham; City Administrator Fred Russell

Comments (42) Add comment
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andrew412
0
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andrew412 08/20/09 - 01:56 am
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i lost interest in this story

i lost interest in this story after the 14th paragraph

Asitisinaug
3
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Asitisinaug 08/20/09 - 02:03 am
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Why do we even pay this

Why do we even pay this idiotic city attorney - oh, so she can referr answers to her friends so they can bill us for not doing anythinig. And, the attorney that answered the "law was not broken" needs to be immediately dismissed from performing any city work in the future. He also may wont to stay away from the show "Who's smarter than a 5th grader" as he would surely loose. This is government at its best - Keep the citizens ill informed, deny them access to what is rightfully theirs, do as you please and the law be damned. Our press can't even get all 1,000 pages of the so called health care reform from the Feds as this is just the way government is operating at all levels -- we want your money to do what we want to do and you need to "trust" us without verification. Fire the employee who failed to give the information and/or whomever directed him not to do so and definetly get rid of both of the attorney's as they are a disgrace, just like this whole fiasco. Our local government needs strong leadership which is sorely lacking at this time.

omnomnom
3964
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omnomnom 08/20/09 - 02:29 am
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this is what happens when

this is what happens when people try to ram arbitrary taxpayer spending through. Another reason the government needs to stay out of "appropriations". Individuals and private companies need to think about their bottom line when spending, they can't just print more money or raise taxes to make ends meet. Of course, if they go belly up they could always ask for a bailout I suppose.

Nativeson1
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Nativeson1 08/20/09 - 05:36 am
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I could have written this

I could have written this tory in just a few sentences. Becky Shealy requested documentation and was given the run around, now she and others are mad!!! Does that sound about right?

Brad Owens
4449
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Brad Owens 08/20/09 - 05:37 am
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Typical Augusta information

Typical Augusta information hoarding. This is nothing new. Try getting anything from ANY org and you get stonewalled.

LEO
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LEO 08/20/09 - 06:20 am
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It's because these people who

It's because these people who are in positions of authority generally know they themselves are inept and have more than likely committed some kind of political faux pas somewhere along the line, which would be discovered in an open records request.

justus4
101
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justus4 08/20/09 - 06:22 am
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Told ya. This request will go
Unpublished

Told ya. This request will go no where because it is a witch hunt to find errors in governmental processes. This gov't will have this poor woman's head spinning before it complies with a request, design to run to the press, then print bad things about governmental officials. It aint gonna happen.

ColdBeerBoiledPeanuts
7808
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ColdBeerBoiledPeanuts 08/20/09 - 06:48 am
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I know this woman and she

I know this woman and she just may leave some government heads spinning. She has more clout than they think at higher levels than they do!

TechLover
15
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TechLover 08/20/09 - 06:56 am
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asitis: Anyone, including the

asitis: Anyone, including the press, can easily get the text of any bill and resolution introduced in Congress, summaries, and the voting results on Thomas (thomas.loc.gov/). I use it all the time. How dare our government waste our tax dollars providing a simple, easy source for information. That d*mn Library of Congress.

Ga Values
27
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Ga Values 08/20/09 - 07:03 am
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The AC needs to follow the

The AC needs to follow the money, someone who is connected is about to get richer.. of course if the someone is Billy Morris there is no need to publish the results.

Grasshopper
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Grasshopper 08/20/09 - 07:21 am
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Where is our VP Biden? Isn't

Where is our VP Biden? Isn't he supposed to be heading up the stimulus and the transparency? Transparency and change it ain't happening. This type of behavior is happening all across the US. Looks like the lawyers and the bureaucrats are eating away at the stimulus funds.

justthefacts
21949
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justthefacts 08/20/09 - 07:57 am
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Fast forward 5 years and

Fast forward 5 years and someone wants a copy of their chest xrays.

Brad Owens
4449
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Brad Owens 08/20/09 - 08:04 am
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Tech Lover, this is a local

Tech Lover, this is a local application and is not posted on that website. Try READING the story before you comment in the future please.

Brenda_G
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Brenda_G 08/20/09 - 08:09 am
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Mrs. Shealy's (and others)

Mrs. Shealy's (and others) determination are greatly appreciated. If we had more people of her ilk, on the commission, all communities would be better represented. "Mr. Willard said that while the Augusta employee violated the law, he could not say whether a misdemeanor was committed. An open records violation has to be "knowing and willful," meaning ignorance of the law is essentially a defense." Well, then, if it wasn't "knowing and willful" it MUST be incompetence. How often have you heard "ignorance of the law is no excuse". Okay, so which is it? I vote incompetence.

Brad Owens
4449
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Brad Owens 08/20/09 - 08:11 am
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justus4, are you a blithering

justus4, are you a blithering idiot? The so-called 'government' answers to US not the other way around you bafoon. This lady wants a copy to see if in fact it does contain Section 8 language or any other type of soul sapping portions so they will know if Fred Russel and the Mayor have asked for something they are claiming isn't in the application. I figured you would be against it since all the 'blacks' oppose it on the commission. I think you better check out who is behind all this. You are supporting the 'white' point of view on this one, that would be WAY out of the norm for you.

ggaston743
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ggaston743 08/20/09 - 08:17 am
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I support what the residents

I support what the residents of the Goshen community are trying to do here, but the title of this article by Augusta Chronicle staff writer, Johnny Edwards, makes it look like the request by Goshen Residents was mishandled, Request by resident of Goshen is mishandled. Come on, isn’t that misleading! When we know that it was the Housing and Community Development Department.

GOSHEN77
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GOSHEN77 08/20/09 - 08:21 am
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No section 8 development in

No section 8 development in Goshen!!!!!!!!

justus4 this is my neighborhood stick your fat nose somewhere else.

TechLover
15
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TechLover 08/20/09 - 08:25 am
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Brad: Asitis started griping

Brad: Asitis started griping that the press couldn't get the text of the healthcare bill. I KNOW a local bill isn't on Thomas. Give me some credit, OK? Back to the local level, I get the feeling the higher ups are going to make Edwards the fall guy. If he doesnt give the information, he's toast due the the open records law. If he does, he's toast because he disobeyed orders from the higher ups. BTW: My wife looked at my posts and said she has known your parents for years and thinks the world of them. Even though we often don't agree politically, maybe we can hoist a few when you get back stateside. Be safe.

getalife
4
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getalife 08/20/09 - 08:31 am
0
0
This sounds like Chiquita and

This sounds like Chiquita and her bunch of bananas, along with the department not providing the information should be replaced. If the legal department cannot handle any issue correctly and has to spend a million dollars a year for help from her legal friends in Atlanta, why not hire a local legal group?

disssman
6
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disssman 08/20/09 - 09:16 am
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As a taxpayer I would expect

As a taxpayer I would expect to see someone being released because they don't know the basics of their job. Not sure who it is, but someone must go. Lets the rats decide who.

Grasshopper
7
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Grasshopper 08/20/09 - 09:29 am
0
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Government at its best, and

Government at its best, and you people think the federal government is solution to our nations problem?

Brad Owens
4449
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Brad Owens 08/20/09 - 10:51 am
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TechLover, you bet I will. I

TechLover, you bet I will. I love to argue politics but I never take in on a personal level. My favorite watering hole when I am home has been Stillwater Taproom for happy hour and Pizza Joint for other times.

Big_vike
1
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Big_vike 08/20/09 - 12:13 pm
0
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How about in instead of some

How about in instead of some "employee training" we have some employee FIRING, teach the local government that they work for us, and that includes every single county employee who's salary is funded by our tax dollars.

Big_vike
1
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Big_vike 08/20/09 - 12:15 pm
0
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And Cudos to Becky for

And Cudos to Becky for documenting the process and following up, the only way to catch them is document every single thing, she obviously has learned this.

demented dave
0
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demented dave 08/20/09 - 12:39 pm
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I think having Section 8

I think having Section 8 housing in Goshen is a great idea. Provide a little economic diversity. Sick of these rich snobs using their money to segregate themselves. Make them have to deal with the realities of life just like the rest of us do.

Big_vike
1
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Big_vike 08/20/09 - 12:45 pm
0
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Except this article isn't on

Except this article isn't on that topic, its about our city employee's not knowing what a Freedom of Information Act request is, what it means, what constitutes compliance, and at the end of the day, Their jobs. This is not the first such case, and it only breeds more distrust in our Consolidated government.

Little Lamb
46040
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Little Lamb 08/20/09 - 02:07 pm
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The problem with the law is

The problem with the law is that there are no penalties for violating the Open Records Act. So the city violated the Open Records Act. So what? Nobody in city government is going to get punished in any way. So why not break the law? The law is only for you "other" saps.

GOSHEN77
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GOSHEN77 08/20/09 - 02:49 pm
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Demented dave your welcome to

Demented dave your welcome to come to the course this Coming Saturday morning and let us know how you feel.

P.S. wear something colorful.

InChristLove
22473
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InChristLove 08/20/09 - 02:53 pm
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demented dave, Goshen is an

demented dave, Goshen is an economically diverse neighborhood from medium income to higher income. We just don't need section 8 residents living in $200,000 condos/apartment gated community.

demented dave
0
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demented dave 08/20/09 - 02:58 pm
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Goshen77, what's the matter,

Goshen77, what's the matter, Yankee, touched a nerve? Go back where you belong, your type isn't welcome here.

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