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Former Avondale Estates City Manager Clai Brown announces run for mayor

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Former Avondale Estates City Manager Clai Brown announces run for mayor

Avondale Estates City Manager Clai Brown stands next to a portrait of his father, former city manager and police chief Dewey Brown. Photo by: Dan Whisenhunt
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Former Avondale Estates City Manager Clai Brown plans to run against incumbent Mayor Jonathan Elmore in the Nov. 5 elections.

Brown announced his candidacy on Monday evening, July 8.

“I care about the future of Avondale Estates and the quality of life it offers,” Brown said. “My focus is always on the betterment of our city, making Avondale Estates a safe place to live, work and raise a family – making sure every resident and business thrives. I care about the future of Avondale Estates and the quality of life it offers.”

Brown will likely face renewed scrutiny over his decision to resign as City Manager and demand $300,000 in severance pay, a move that drew a strong rebuke from the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). A severance for resigning a public sector job is unheard of.

As the resignation drama unfolded in February 2018, ICMA Executive Director Marc Ott issued a blistering statement condemning Brown’s actions.

He said, “Avondale Estates City Manager Clai Brown is not a member of ICMA, the International City/County Management Association. Despite that fact, as a public servant, he should be committed to the highest standards of ethical behavior and full transparency.

“The Compensation Guidelines for chief appointed officers developed by ICMA are driven by the ICMA Code of Ethics and are intended to maintain public trust and integrity in local government. In addition to public disclosure of the manager’s agreement, a key element of the guidelines is that every manager ensure that the agreement and amendments are disclosed to relevant elected officials, and this did not appear to have taken place in Avondale Estates. The guidelines also specify that severance should be reasonable and affordable, a standard that Mr. Brown’s $317,000 severance obviously does not [meet].”

Brown hasn’t answered questions regarding the severance or how it was added to his contract. In his statement, Brown only said that he resigned because City Commissioners meddled in the management of city government, something that was forbidden by the city’s charter.

“Not adhering to the city charter made it difficult for me to do my job to the standard that I believe best served the interests of the residents and business owners,” Brown said.

None of the current commission members were on the board when Brown’s contract was amended to include the severance. The amendment was added during a tumultuous time for the city. Former mayor Ed Rieker had resigned in 2014 following a controversy over the city’s annexation plans. The interim mayor at the time was Mayor Pro Tem Terry Giager. He signed the contract amendment on Feb. 23, 2015, a few weeks before Jonathan Elmore, the current mayor, was elected. The former commissioners who were on the board when the amendment was added never responded to messages seeking comment.

The city has been unable to produce definitive evidence that the City Commission voted on the amendment and there’s no evidence that the public knew about it beforehand. At one point, Avondale’s attorney said that amendment wasn’t properly approved. Eventually, Brown and the City Commission reached an agreement to part ways, with Brown receiving a $45,000 severance and $32,000 in accrued leave.

A Decaturish investigation into Brown’s time with the city showed that he routinely received raises to the point that his salary – $180,000 a year when he resigned – easily dwarfed those of comparably sized cities. Michele Frisby, director of public information for ICMA, said that a survey showed that the average salary for the manager of a Georgia city with a population between 2,500 and 5,000 people is $91,167 a year.

While working for the city, Brown received permission to operate a company called Real Estate Mortgage Relief. The stated purpose of the company was, “Buying and selling foreclosures.” His original contract from 2008 says, “the city hereby consents to [Brown’s] operation of Real Estate Mortgage Relief, Inc.” if it didn’t interfere with his duties or pose a conflict of interest. The contract said Brown could not use any city resources to run the business. While it isn’t uncommon for City Managers to have a side gig, ICMA recommends jobs that don’t pose a potential conflict of interest, like teaching, lecturing, writing, or consulting. To read the full Decaturish investigation, click here.

Brown’s entry into the race presents a unique challenge for Mayor Elmore. Brown’s roots in the city run deep. He is the son of Dewey Brown, who was Avondale’s city manager and police chief for Avondale Estates for 46 years. He cites his business experience with Home Depot and his up-from-the-bootstraps rise within the company as qualities that make him suited to the job of mayor.

“His 22 year career at Home Depot began as one of the original associates to open the first Home Depot store located where the DeKalb County Tax office is on Memorial Drive,” his campaign announcement says. “Brown worked his way up from a lot man – cleaning restrooms, emptying trash and assisting customers – to leading one of the largest districts in revenue and associates. He retired from Home Depot in 2002 to start his own real estate business. In 2005, he accepted an executive  position with an Atlanta company providing services to 368 Home Depot stores in the Southeast Division and Puerto Rico.”

He became city manager in 2007. Since leaving the city, Brown has stayed busy. He’s been filing records requests with the city of Avondale Estates, including requests for information about the city’s millage rates, sanitation fees and electronic copies of the budget. He recently emailed residents with his concerns about city finances, saying they were overcharged for sanitation fees in 2018. The email led to a formal response from Mayor Elmore, though Brown’s name was not mentioned.

Here is Brown’s full campaign announcement:

Avondale Estates, GA — Clai Brown announced on Monday his intent to run for Mayor of Avondale Estates.  “My business experience combined with my experience in city government gives me a unique perspective for serving the residents and business owners of Avondale Estates,” said Brown.

His 22 year career at Home Depot began as one of the original associates to open the first Home Depot store located where the DeKalb County Tax office is on Memorial Drive.  Brown worked his way up from a lot man – cleaning restrooms, emptying trash and assisting customers – to leading one of the largest districts in revenue and associates. He retired from Home Depot in 2002 to start his own real estate business. In 2005, he accepted an executive  position with an Atlanta company providing services to 368 Home Depot stores in the Southeast Division and Puerto Rico.

In November 2007, Brown applied for the vacant City Manager position of Avondale Estates. He went through the interview process with the Board of Mayor and Commissioners, and was hired as City Manager of Avondale Estates in 2008. “It was always my dream to serve the City of Avondale Estates,” Brown said. “I love the City and care about our residents.  For ten years, I dedicated myself to effectively and efficiently running the day-to-day operation of the City – making sure every resident, business owner, and visitor had the opportunity to enjoy our City.”

When asked why he resigned as City Manager after ten years of service, Brown said his resignation was based primarily on his concern with the lack of adherence to the City Charter, specifically Section 2.30 Commission interference with administration.  “Not adhering to the City Charter made it difficult for me to do my job to the standard that I believe best served the interests of the residents and business owners,” he said. “ I care about the future of Avondale Estates and the quality of life it offers.  My focus is always on the betterment of our City, making Avondale Estates a safe place to live, work and raise a family – making sure every resident and business thrives.”

Clai Brown is expected to officially announce his plan to run for mayor soon.  Qualifying for the election for Mayor of Avondale Estates is August 19.  The general election will be held November 5.

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