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Editorial: Clarkston needs to part ways with its city manager before the city implodes

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Editorial: Clarkston needs to part ways with its city manager before the city implodes

Shawanna Qawiy, Clarkston's city manager.

It is hard to overstate what a hot mess the city of Clarkston is right now.

But identifying the cause of that mess is pretty easy. The blame lies with City Manager Shawanna Qawiy, and it’s been obvious for several months that she shouldn’t be Clarkston’s city manager.

We normally would not call for a city manager’s removal because that’s not our call to make.

The Clarkston City Council is responsible for oversight of its city manager, but it’s clear that the council is either incapable, unwilling or simply uninterested in doing its job. Meanwhile, the city is imploding. Police officers are quitting for better pay and a less toxic work environment, leaving so few officers behind that the city is asking DeKalb County Police for assistance. Multiple city employees in other departments have left, too. Our phone has not stopped ringing and our inbox has been full as person after person contacts us to tell us something is profoundly wrong within Clarkston’s city government.

For those of you unaware of how rank-and-file city employees normally interact with the press, that sort of thing is unusual. Government jobs are supposed to be cake gigs. Most city employees are so terrified of losing those jobs that they would never dream of talking to the media about their grievances, particularly if they work as police officers. It’s seldom worth the risk. But in Clarkston, police officers are lining up and publicly voicing their concerns to the media and city council.

Councilmember Jamie Carroll is the only member of the council who seems to appreciate how serious this situation is. He’s tried to publicly push for police pay raises and bring this discussion to the forefront, only to be quickly shut down by his colleagues. And what does the rest of the council have to say about what’s happening in Clarkston? This meme sums it up.

Frankly, I wasn’t even sure we should publicly call for Qawiy’s ouster until Qawiy herself sealed the deal for us. As media outlets, attracted by the scent of a juicy story, have turned their cameras and microphones toward the city, the city manager has decided to dig in. In response to an inquiry from 11 Alive, Qawiy gaslit the station’s reporter about Carroll’s attempt to get the council to address police pay.

“The above-referenced story contained certain inaccurate/incomplete information that should be corrected,” she told 11 Alive in response to its story about police officers leaving the city. “You reported that the city council ‘voted not to hear’ a proposed increase in starting police officer salary at its June meeting. This is misleading. The city council never acted to deny a salary increase to our police officers; the council merely declined to add a police salary item to a busy agenda at the last minute.”

When a city manager starts doing the “Do you believe me or your lying eyes?” routine with the press, it’s a sign that she is not fit to do this job.

If the rest of Clarkston’s City Council and Mayor Beverly Burks were listening to their constituents, they would’ve put a stop to this nonsense long before Qawiy started dismantling the police department. But the council seems to be going out of its way to protect Qawiy, for reasons that are not clear to anyone watching their meetings. God only knows what kind of deal they’ve struck, but whatever the deal is, it does not have the best interests of Clarkston’s residents in mind.

There are city council elections coming up this fall, and three seats are up for grabs. In theory, the voters of Clarkston can course correct and install a council that will act like it’s interested in actually governing “the most diverse square mile in America.”

The question is, if Qawiy is allowed to remain in her post until after the November elections, how much damage will she do between now and when a new council is installed in January? She’s already demonstrated she’s capable of gutting an entire police department and throwing city hall into chaos by driving away city employees. Do we really want to find out what else she’s capable of before she is finally shown the door?

City Councilmembers Awet Eyasu, Debra Johnson, and Laura Hopkins are up for reelection. Johnson and Hopkins are undecided. Decaturish did not receive an immediate response from Eyasu about his plans.

But Hopkins has indicated she is ready to throw in the towel.

“As the City of Clarkston city government is imploding as we speak, I have to admit that I would not vote for me right now,” Hopkins told us. “Our city is at a point of crisis, but correcting would require a consensus of the council that is not there. I have not decided if I should continue the term that I am in, or if I should resign and leave Clarkston. It is up for debate, but there are concerns in city hall that my colleagues seem to be in denial about, despite it being pointed out by your publication, three metro television stations, several residents, multiple exit interviews of former employees, a good chunk of the council and others. Anything before addressing the current crises is just re-arranging deck chairs (please pardon the cliché.) I did not attend the last council meeting or work session. I am not sure how many I will attend between now and the end of my term.”

Respectfully, Councilmember Hopkins, you need to be saying these things — very loudly — at city council meetings, not in emails to the press. You’re a public servant, and part of public service means acting like the voice of reason even when you’re outnumbered. If you decide to phone it in until January, you are leaving a pitiful legacy and failing your constituents.

And if Hopkins’ sentiments are shared by other councilmembers, Clarkston is in more trouble than we thought.

If city councilmembers won’t hold Qawiy accountable, who will?

It certainly won’t be the press. Yesterday, Qawiy stood up a WSB-TV reporter who had been working on a story about Clarkston for two weeks. The reporter waited for Qawiy at city hall for four hours for an interview. Qawiy instead sent the reporter a text and left city hall with a police escort.

The same city manager who has no problems putting the safety of Clarkston’s residents at risk seems to have no problem using the police to protect herself from basic levels of accountability.

Look, we could go on and on about this. Some of the stories we’re being told about what’s going on in Clarkston are unbelievable, and yet are becoming more plausible with each passing day. We’re in no position to judge whether Qawiy has “animus” towards white people, as outgoing Police Chief Christine Hudson alleged. If you’ll recall, Qawiy suspended Hudson on trumped-up charges of “conduct unbecoming a city employee” because they had a disagreement in a private meeting.

Qawiy owed the public an explanation for why she suspended Hudson, but claimed she couldn’t because it was a “personnel matter.” But Hudson isn’t just another member of the city’s staff. She’s the police chief, and suspending a police chief is a big deal. It’s a decision that requires more public transparency than Qawiy has provided. It’s apparent that whenever Qawiy is called out for her actions, she responds by playing the victim. I spoke to one person familiar with the council’s thinking, who lamented that “Hudson can say whatever she wants, but Qawiy can’t say anything.”

Except, that’s not true. Qawiy can say whatever she wants. She chooses not to. By suspending Hudson, she did make a statement. Did she think people weren’t going to notice Hudson had an unplanned absence from city hall? Did she think people weren’t going to ask questions about it? Please. This was a very public humiliation of Hudson by the city manager. Hudson had a right to publicly defend herself from the city manager’s implication that she had done something wrong.

Qawiy had every opportunity to present a convincing case for why Hudson should’ve been suspended. When the media started asking questions, she chose to hide behind the same police officers she’s been disrespecting for months.

We have seen enough. Qawiy has no business being the city manager of Clarkston. If Clarkston’s City Council and the mayor have any shred of competence or decency left, they need to part ways with Qawiy, so Clarkston can move forward.

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