Clarkston residents pack city hall for tense council work sessionRobyn Sands (holding sign) and Candy Pearson attend the Clarkston City Council work session on Tuesday, July 25, 2023. Photo by Dean Hesse.
Clarkston, GA — The Clarkston city council held its first public meeting after the police department collapsed and the city’s finance director called several payment requests from the city manager into question. The only item on the published agenda for the July 25 work session was a discussion of raising pay for the city’s police.
But the discussion quickly veered into questions about the leadership of City Manager Shawanna Qawiy, who has been accused of creating a toxic work environment in the city. One councilmember said the council hadn’t been told the truth about when Qawiy was made aware of police staffing issues and said that any police pay raises should be tied to an investigation of the city manager.
City police initially limited seating to 37 people, a number set when the city council decided to return to in-person meetings, but the decision was made to allow the room to fill. More Clarkston residents stood in the lobby of Clarkston’s city hall, listening over a speaker.
Councilmember Laura Hopkins moved to add a discussion to the agenda of the four outstanding city contracts, including one with the new 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. 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.
Councilmember Susan Hood moved to add the discussion of holding a special meeting to accommodate further public comment. That motion was approved.
After a tense city council meeting in June where Clarkston police spoke about low morale and dangerous job conditions, the city raised starting pay from 12.8% to $52,000 per year and raised existing officers’ pay by 8%.
Councilmember Awet Eyasu began the discussion at the work session by saying he would favor raising starting pay again to $55,000.
Councilmember Jamie Carroll, who is out of the country and attended the work session via Zoom, said he’d actually prefer $60,000 because it would give Clarkston a competitive edge, and the city should raise salaries of other officers by an equivalent amount.
Vice Mayor Debra Johnson asked how the city could afford the raises.
“We have a budget surplus this year,” Carroll said.
Carroll added that all the local police departments were in competition with each other to attract new officers. “We need to pay the market rate if we want to have a police force,” Carroll said.
Johnson was not convinced and said she did not believe the city could sustain that large of a jump in salaries.
“It’s happening everywhere, but we’re the only ones going from $48,000 to $60,000,” Johnson said.
Mayor Beverly Burks asked about an upcoming Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) as a potential source of funding.
City Attorney Stephen Quinn said that if the SPLOST passes, it can’t be used directly for salaries. However, it can be used for public safety infrastructure and other items in the budget, which would free up money for salaries.
Quinn reminded the council that they do not set the salary for any city employees other than the city manager. The council does set the budget.
“If you want to raise salaries, you can amend the budget,” Quinn said.
Hopkins said that the council had discussed reallocating the budget before.
“The money was always there to give those raises. It’s been there,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins said that salaries aren’t the only problem in the police department, and the police department is not the only one in turmoil.
“My concern is that in May that we were told that the very first time [City Manager Qawiy] had heard that there was a problem with the police leaving was a couple of days before she spoke to us, in May. We have since found out that that’s not true,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins went on to say that Chief Christine Hudson had proposed raises in 2021 and 2022, and that again in March 2023.
Hopkins said that she had told other council members that unless an investigation into wrongdoing by the city manager went hand in hand with a discussion of compensation, the latter would be useless and that even with raises, police officers would still walk out.
“That’s exactly what happened,” Hopkins said.
Councilmember YT Bell said, “What I heard from police was that raises weren’t the solution. They need more capacity and more bodies on the street. We need to look at the bigger picture.”
Quinn said that if the council wants to reallocate funds to allow raises, they will need a budget resolution that specifies line items, and the budget will need to balance out.
Finance Director Dan Defnall said that getting that ready by the next council meeting would be difficult.
“I’ll do my best, I’ll start on it tomorrow,” Defnall said.
The council did not discuss Defnall’s email to councilmembers on Friday raising questions about contracts being issued by the city and other expenses. The city council did not hold any closed-door executive sessions to discuss personnel matters during the July 25 work session.
Clarkston’s residents expressed disappointment in the council’s unwillingness to address the city’s problems.
Resident Brian Medford attributed the collapse of the police department to shortsightedness.
“How did we get to this point? Last year we had police officers. All we had to do was keep them,” Medford said.
Medford went on to say that it was common knowledge that other police departments were struggling to find officers. However, Clarkston had officers devoted to the city and a beloved police chief. Both officers and the chief are in the process of being driven away by what Medford describes as a series of bad decisions.
“Our reputation among law enforcement is bad. Why would any officer want to work for so little pay in a bad work environment?” Medford asked.
Medford went on to question why the city has money to hire a new director of police services and a public relations firm, but not money for police salaries.
“I’m glad the city council has been brave enough to finally have a discussion in public, but I know it’s only because everything else has failed,” Medford said.
Glory Kilanko, founder and CEO of Women Watch Africa, said that members of the community feel very frightened. Kilanko went on to say that she had spoken to several police officers, including those who had left, and they told her that the problem was not their salaries but the working conditions.
“They are being dehumanized. They are not being treated with dignity. They said they would rather accept a lower salary somewhere else and have their peace of mind,” said Kilanko.
Ahmed Hassan, a former city council member, said that raising salaries would not attract officers until the city council gets to the bottom of the problem. Hassan advised the council to speak to the city manager, police chief, current,officers, and officers who have left.
“Be fair.. Figure it out,” Hassan said.
Resident Andrew Stanley said that he loves Clarkston and is a former police officer, and had considered working for the city’s police department.
“I don’t care how much money you pay me, I won’t work for this city until you change the real problem, which is management,” Stanley said.
“Clarkston is a dumpster fire. It’s your fault,” Stanley added. “You’re burning it to the ground,” Stanley said.
Renita Knight expressed fear for her safety. “I don’t know how in the hell you can run a shift with two cops. I understand that if something happens they don’t even have backup,” Knight said. “… For the first time I’m thinking of moving out of Clarkston. I’m scared for the first time.”
Katie Jones said that she had to tell a friend not to buy a house in Clarkston because of what is happening with the police department
Emmanuel Ransom, a former mayor, urged the city council to hold a town hall meeting.
Hood said that because work session rules only allow the public to speak on topics mentioned in the agenda, she would like to hold a town hall to allow residents to speak to the council about the current situation in the city before the next council meeting, Aug 3.
A tense exchange followed, in which Bell questioned why Hood was bringing the subject up at all, since any committee chair can hold a meeting and any two council members can call a meeting. Hood said that she wanted to discuss it in a group.
Johnson said there was already a town hall meeting planned for August 9 about the upcoming SPLOST.
Johnson then added there are some things that the public might want to discus that the council can’t speak on or answer questions about.
“There are matters that should not be discussed by the council, and the council knows what those are,” said Quinn. However, he added, there is no such restriction on the public.
The council agreed to find a time and a place for a larger town hall within the next few days.
Decaturish media partner Atlanta News First aired this story about Tuesday’s meeting:
Here are more photos from the July 25 Clarkston City Council meeting:
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