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Clarkston City Council plans town hall, shows no signs of acting on allegations against city manager


Clarkston City Council plans town hall, shows no signs of acting on allegations against city manager

Clarkston City Manager Shawanna Qawiy. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This story has been updated. 

Clarkston, GA — Nearly a week after Clarkston’s finance director raised questions about payment requests he received from City Manager Shawanna Qawiy, Clarkston’s City Council shows no signs that it plans to take any action or investigate the matter further.

A new legal analysis by the city attorney obtained by Decaturish raises new questions about contracts issued by the city of Clarkston.

Instead of dealing with those questions at a council meeting, the council has planned a town hall format where they intend to listen to residents’ concerns. The meeting will be held on July 27 at 7 p.m. at the Clarkston Community Center, Angora Hall, located at 3701 College Avenue. There are no action items on the agenda for the town hall.

The council already got an earful from residents at its July 25 work session, with most commenters placing the blame for the city’s current dysfunction at Qawiy’s feet.

The town hall will not be a place where the council can take any action on the allegations against Qawiy, however. The only way the council can discuss personnel matters is in a closed-door meeting known as an executive session that occurs as part of a city council meeting. An executive session was on the council’s July 25 agenda, but the council adjourned without going into executive session.

Following the meeting, Mayor Beverly Burks told Decaturish that she was waiting for Councilmember Jamie Carroll to return from a trip overseas to participate in the executive session. Carroll participated in the July 25 meeting via teleconference and said he was prepared to attend an executive session via teleconference as well. City Attorney Stephen Quinn confirmed to Decaturish that Carroll, who has publicly advocated acting on the allegations against Qawiy, could have participated in the executive session via teleconference.

Carroll said he was initially concerned he’d be on a flight at 8:30 p.m. on July 25, but the flight was rescheduled, and he was ready to participate in the executive session. He said he informed Burks of this.

“She did ask me if I would be back in town and I told her I wouldn’t be, but she didn’t tell me that was a barrier for an executive session,” Carroll said via text on July 26. “I’m honestly not sure why one wasn’t held. I thought it would be. Regardless, I’ll be back tomorrow, so that excuse will be gone.”

Burks said that she was unable to call an emergency executive session.

“The way our government is set up, I can’t call an emergency executive session by myself,” Burks said. “It requires two council members. If you noted, I asked for agenda updates last night for the meeting and nobody added it.”

When Decaturish pointed out that there already was an executive session on the agenda, Burks said that was not sufficient to hold an executive session.

“No, it was the template,” Burks said. “It had old business … but not a specific item listed.”

Burks said the agenda has to specify whether the session is about litigation, personnel, or real estate matters.

That’s not correct. There’s nothing in state law that says that the reason for an executive session is required to be published on a government meeting agenda before the meeting. The law only says the reasons for the executive session need to be entered into the official minutes of the meeting. To read the relevant law, click here.

Carroll contacted Decaturish on July 28 and said he now feels the confusion about the executive session was a misunderstanding.

“I thought since it was listed on the agenda, we would proceed with it but she thought we needed to add it to the agenda with a separate vote and that didn’t happen,” Carroll said.

It’s unclear whether there are two council members willing to call an emergency executive session to deal with the issues raised in the finance director’s email sent to the council on Friday, July 21.

“Given recent scrutiny and questions about contracts and purchasing issues and all of the miscommunication and obvious lack of communication going in this city, I feel the need to bring these items to the attention of the full council immediately,” Finance Director Dan Defnall wrote.

Defnall attached the following documents to his email: a quote for security cameras at city hall and two documents pertaining to Vice Mayor Debra Johnson.

One document is a request to reimburse Johnson’s spouse for attending the Georgia Municipal Association Convention and another document is an invoice that was billed to Johnson instead of Qawiy or the city of Clarkston. Defnall’s email cited a section of the city code that says, “Neither the mayor nor any member of the city council shall personally order any goods or services for the city. All purchases shall be made by the city manager, with approval by the city council as a body where appropriate.”

“The attached documents have been given to me by the city manager with intentions for payments being issued,” Defnall said.

The expenditures involving Johnson are nominal sums, but the quote for security cameras is almost $20,000. According to city code, anything above $5,000 must be awarded via a competitive bid process.

“I received this signed quote from the City Manager and there was no scope of work or description of what all of this equipment and installation was for,” Defnall said in this email to the council. “… My concern is this item has not budgeted and has not been presented to the City council as a critical need.”

City Attorney Quinn has provided the city council with a lengthy analysis of the city manager’s purchasing authority and the city council’s responsibilities. Councilmember Laura Hopkins forwarded that analysis to Decaturish.

“According to City Charter Section 2.03, the mayor shall sign contracts when they are approved by the city council. I do not believe that there is any provision in our charter or code for the city manager to sign contracts,” Quinn said. “That said, I would not be surprised to learn that city managers have signed contracts in the past.  To me, the more important thing is that the council approves the contract in a public meeting, rather than who signs it after that.  (Of course, the best practice would be to follow the charter and have the mayor sign). To be clear, not every single expenditure is a ‘contract’ that would require council approval.  For example, purchases of goods in regular use at city hall (i.e., office supplies, uniforms, etc.) are not required to be specifically approved by the council so long as they are budgeted.”

Quinn also explained exceptions to the city’s bid rules.

“City code section 2-5 requires all contracts with a value over $5,000 to be awarded pursuant to a competitive process,” Quinn said. “There are certain exceptions to this such as use of a state contract, emergency situations, very specific goods or services that can be considered ‘sole source’ and contracts for professional services (‘professional’ here meaning attorneys, architects, engineers and similar positions licensed by the state).”

All contracts must be signed by the city attorney, Quinn noted.

“According to City Charter Section 3.03, the City Attorney ‘shall approve as to form and legality all contracts, deeds, ordinances, and resolutions having the force of law,'” Quinn said. “There is no exception to this requirement.”

Quinn added any contracts that don’t follow the city policies he described would be null and void.

“To the extent that a contract is signed by a city official without going through the process set forth above, this would be an ultra vires act (meaning beyond that official’s authority),” Quinn said. “In such a situation, the city would not be bound to the contract. If the council became aware of such a situation, it would be appropriate to either ratify the contract by going through the process above or to disavow the contract by vote of the city council.”

Hopkins believes there are at least four contracts that would be considered void, according to Quinn’s analysis: a contract for the city’s new director of police services, a contract for a human resources consultant, a contract for a public relations firm, and a contract for the cameras. During the July 25 meeting, only Hopkins moved to amend the agenda to add a discussion of the four outstanding city contracts, including the one with the new the Director of Police Services John Pearson, that did not go through proper channels. The motion failed, lacking a second.

Pearson sent out a press release on July 25 saying he has entered into a “verbal agreement” with the city manager about his employment and will take an “oath of office” on Aug. 1. Police Chief Christine Hudson has said that Pearson is already working in the city.

Click here to see Pearson’s full statement, which was provided to Decaturish by Bill Torpy, a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“None of these have gone through council, public bidding process, city attorney, or mayor signature,” Hopkins said of the four contracts. “None were in the budget to come from the general fund, and all should have, whether they are contracts or not. These are the four items that I tried to add to the agenda for [the July 25 work session] to have a cease and desist on until they were properly processed. If Mr. Pearson is a direct hire rather than a consultant, then he has been hired into a position that cannot exist in our city structure without a change of city ordinance.”

Before the July 25 meeting, Councilmember Susan Hood pledged to follow up on Defnall’s email, saying, “Residents have a right to know if their tax dollars are being spent legally and in compliance with city regulations.”

She said she wanted to gather the facts.

“We have alarming information from a very credible source that there is a problem,” Hood said. “I want an opinion from our city attorney, based on information from both Mr. Defnall and Ms. Qawiy, about whether she violated city purchasing regulations. I expect this can be done by [Wednesday]. The results will be made public.”

The city hasn’t released any additional information about what follow-up, if any, occurred on Defnall’s email. Hood didn’t discuss that email at any length at the July 25 meeting, instead pushing for a town hall that all council members agreed wouldn’t resolve anything because they couldn’t discuss or vote on personnel issues.

Another question is whether Johnson will have to recuse herself from any votes pertaining to Qawiy now that Defnall has raised questions about Johnson’s requests to the city manager.

If Johnson were unable to participate in the vote due to recusing herself, it would break a deadlock that is preventing the council from acting on this issue, according to information provided by Hopkins. Hopkins said the council is split 3-3, with herself, Carroll and Hood in favor of taking action on the allegations against Qawiy and Johnson, YT Bell and Awet Eyasu in favor of doing nothing. If the deadlock remains, Burks would have to break the tie and Hopkins said Burks is not interested in taking action against Qawiy, though Burks publicly says she hasn’t taken a position.

If Johnson were forced to recuse herself, Burks’ vote would not be necessary and the council could suspend or remove its city manager in a 3-2 vote.

Quinn would not respond to a question from Decaturish about whether Johnson should recuse herself in this matter.

“I have no comment regarding this inquiry,” Quinn said.

In a Facebook post announcing the July 27 town hall, the city said it is listening to residents. It’s unclear who authored the post.

“We have heard you, and now we want to listen to your concerns. As passionate residents, your voices matter, and we are eager to engage in open discussions. Let’s work together towards finding solutions and shifting the current conditions and narrative in our beloved City,” the Facebook post says. “Your presence and input are invaluable as we strive to promote the vibrancy, culture, and beauty of Clarkston. Let’s build a stronger and more united community.”

Sara Amis contributed reporting to this story.

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