Stonecrest purges disgraced mayor’s political appointees

All members of the Stonecrest Development Authority and Stonecrest Housing Authority asked to resign
This is a screenshot from the last meeting held by the Stonecrest Housing Authority on Feb. 22.

Credit: City of Stonecrest

Credit: City of Stonecrest

This is a screenshot from the last meeting held by the Stonecrest Housing Authority on Feb. 22.

Stonecrest is cleaning house.

The city’s founding mayor, Jason Lary, recently pleaded guilty to concocting a fraud scheme using federal pandemic relief funds. In the wake of the scandal, the other city leaders are dismantling the last vestiges of the disgraced mayor’s influence by demanding members of the city’s authorities, who were all appointed by Lary, resign.

The city’s two primary authorities, the Stonecrest Development Authority and Stonecrest Housing Authority, both had close ties to the mayor during his administration, but authority members argue that isn’t the case anymore. Bill Bruckner, the chair of the housing authority before he submitted to the city’s request that he resign, said city leaders are overcorrecting by hitting the reset button.

“The problem with cleaning house is that if you’re not careful, you’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” Bruckner told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday. The housing authority has five members, while the development authority has six.

Authorities, such as these, are separate legal entities from the cities they serve and are comprised of volunteers appointed by elected officials. They typically enter into agreements with their cities to make financial deals, offer incentives and issue bonds to foster development or create affordable housing.

Bruckner argued the housing authority has made great strides over the past year, greenlighting multiple housing deals, balancing the authority’s finances and publicly rebuking the former mayor multiple times. The first housing project that received assistance from the authority, the Stonepointe Apartments off Covington Highway, recently held a ribbon-cutting attended by multiple councilmembers. Bruckner said he and the other authority members who helped strike the deal were not invited.

City Manager Janice Allen Jackson said the five-member City Council wants a clean slate.

“Those requests for resignation were sent as a part of our ongoing efforts to seek a fresh start with various aspects of our organization,” she said in an email. “In the future, we may identify other ways for former members to serve Stonecrest.”

The mayor’s heavy hand

Lary, the founding mayor of Stonecrest, was heavily involved in the creation and operation of both authorities. They’ve both had their own financial scandals and allegations of political corruption.

The AJC recently published an in-depth article on the development authority, finding that the authority’s leaders had no records of prior bond deals and was effectively defunct. The city defunded the authority, stopped communication with its members and pledged to look into how to oversee the prior bond deals.

Belinda Hull, the development authority’s chair, did not respond to the AJC’s requests for comment about the resignation requests. The authority has not held a public meeting in more than a year.

In addition to appointing all members and being involved in meetings, Lary also set up the housing authority’s bank accounts and oversaw its finances.

In April 2021, Lary attempted to move about $235,000 of housing authority funds before returning the money the next day. This included writing a $100,000 check to MRPC Inc., a Nevada company that shared the same initials as the shell company the mayor admitted to setting up to defraud the city’s pandemic relief program.

He denied wrongdoing at the time, but the incident led the council to revoke the mayor’s check-writing privileges and prompted an audit of the authority’s finances. City leaders also found the authority’s bank accounts were not created independently from the city’s finances.

Bruckner denounced the mayor’s actions during public meetings, which he said showed the authority wasn’t under the mayor’s thumb.

“We went out of our way to rebuff the mayor when we felt like he was trying to influence us in ways that we didn’t think was appropriate,” he told the AJC. “...We tried to make a point of the fact that we were independent from the mayor.”

‘We just see upheaval’

During the housing authority’s last meeting on Feb. 9, Bruckner said he was optimistic that the council would meet with them soon to work things out. Instead, he received letters asking for them to resign the next day.

The letters, written by Mayor Pro Tem George Turner, cited Georgia law, which allows mayors to remove authority members for “inefficiency, neglect of duty or misconduct in office.” With the mayor’s office vacant, Turner temporarily fulfills the mayor’s duties until a special election fills the remainder of Lary’s term.

Bruckner resigned, calling it a “lost cause” to fight the council’s decision and tendered his resignation.

At least one authority member doesn’t see it that way.

“I decided not to resign pending the city council’s findings regarding the SHA,” Edwina Clanton, the housing authority’s treasurer, told the AJC in a Thursday email. “I believe the council will find that the SHA is and has been operating in the best interest of the City of Stonecrest and its citizens.”

Clanton, the wife of former councilman Jimmy Clanton, added she still wants to be a “good partner” to the city, which did not include any funding for the housing authority in its 2022 budget.

When asked whether other housing authority or development authority members have declined to resign, Jackson said she did not know. It’s also unclear if or when the council might make replacement appointees.

Bruckner said the entire situation is unfortunate, since it presented the opportunity for city leaders and the beleaguered authorities to come together and make more deals to benefit residents. Instead, he sees it as another dour news story that paints the city in a negative light.

“This could have been a story about how we reconciled with City Council. And with reconciliation comes healing,” he said. “We don’t see any healing. We just see upheaval.”