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George on Georgia – Stonecrest Stumbles

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George on Georgia – Stonecrest Stumbles

George Chidi. Photo by Dean Hesse
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Editor’s note: George Chidi now publishes a Substack newsletter called “The Atlanta Objective.” If you want to support him directly, sign up for a paying subscription to his newsletter by clicking here.

Stonecrest, GA — It’s a minute past midnight and a cop is watching Jazzmin Cobble’s house. Stonecrest’s city council cleaned house at city hall and one of the people who got canned threatened her on the way out of the door.

There’s probably more of that coming. 

Sure, people get pissy when they get fired, but a sheriff was assassinated for winning the wrong election here in DeKalb County 20 years ago. Derwin Brown’s ghost demands vigilance.

Stonecrest’s mayor Jason Lary circled the wagons Monday, calling a meeting with faith leaders this afternoon for a COVID-19 relief roundtable. A few hours later, Stonecrest’s city council authorized the release report about how the city doled out $6.2 million in CARES Act relief

State Sen. Emanuel Jones said he expects subpoenas to follow. “This is more than just this CARES Act money,” he said. “There’s p-cards, there’s the (convention and visitors bureau). It’s unfortunate.”

Jones has also asked Gov. Brian Kemp to remove Lary from office.

The city council is explicitly waiving attorney-client privilege for the related documents. The former city attorneys from Coleman Talley might have been part of the problem. The city handed off responsibility for distributing the money to Municipal Resource Partners, a nonprofit formed by the former city attorney – who worked at the same firm as the then-current city attorney – just before the money landed. 

First, this brand-new firm headed by Byron King, a retired teacher with local political connections, took a $510,000 fee off the top

Companies receiving money were then asked to give some of it back for “marketing expenses” by writing a check to one of a set of suggested nonprofits.

For example, the venerable newspaper On Common Ground received $100,000. It cut a check for $25,000 to Visit Us, a recently formed nonprofit. The request appeared to be part of the application, said the editor Valerie Morgan.

“We filled out an application and applied for a grant. The application asks all applicants if they would be willing to put money toward marketing their business,” she said. “After we received the grant, we asked how the marketing would work. We were told the marketing would include billboards, social media, radio.”

Stonecrest’s city council have been trying to parse how all this worked for months now, and have been at war with the mayor in the process.

“Truth comes out in due time,” Cobble said. “I’ve been in government operations for 12 years so I knew time would reveal what I’ve been yelling about.”

The council gained the high ground two weeks ago, when the state Legislature stripped the mayor of much of his authority to set agendas or control the city government. It would have been done sooner, but for the delayed vote to replace State Rep. Pam Stephenson … and Vernon Jones. 

Jones’ district clipped a piece of Stonecrest, and legislative rules require all the elected officials covering a city to agree to local legislation for it to emerge from committee, said State Sen. Emanuel Jones. “He knew he was protected by Vernon Jones. Vernon said there’s no chance of it passing. He said I’m not signing it,” said State Sen. Jones. (The two are not related.)

Jason Lary, who is recovering from cancer, very politely refrained from comment Sunday night, calling me back from a phone at an attorney’s office.

Gov. Kemp dragged his feet calling a special election to replace Stephenson, eventually setting the date for February, with a runoff in March. The runoff came down to Stan Watson – a political ally of Jason Lary – and Angela Moore. Senator Jones backed Moore, who edged out the former DeKalb commissioner in a thinly-attended special election vote. 

Technically, the newly-empowered council hasn’t fired anyone. The city subcontracts its administration through Jacobs Engineering instead of employing people directly. Friday, the council accepted the replacements of its acting city manager, deputy city manager, city clerk, communications director and planning director, one of whom apparently got mouthy at Cobble.

It’s a mess.

Dave Marcus, a civic activist in Stonecrest, calls this moment the end of Act II in the story of the city’s birth.

“Act 1 was a city getting started with a lot of corners being cut, deliberately or not, I don’t know,” he said. “But a lot of things were done that were not in conformance with policies and sometimes not in conformance with the law. … Act 2 opened with the passage of that bill, seemingly out of the blue, and the newly empowered council cleaning house, and insisting that Jacobs give them staff that weren’t beholden to the mayor or in his circle, and were deeply qualified. A phoenix rising from the ashes.”

– George Chidi is a political columnist and public policy advocate. He also writes for The Intercept

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