Questions of transparency in Roswell city government

Downtown Roswell residents and business owners have said they object to plans to close Canton Street to traffic on weekends. (Hyosub Shin /



Downtown Roswell residents and business owners have said they object to plans to close Canton Street to traffic on weekends. (Hyosub Shin /

The debate and controversy over whether to close a portion of Canton Street to vehicular traffic has led to larger accusations that Roswell Mayor Kurt Wilson lacks transparency with residents — and sometimes with members of the city council who disagree with him.

In a call with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Wilson acknowledged that he frequently deletes emails from his personal account that relate to government business, and did not say how they can be retrieved if requested under the Georgia Open Records Act.

Wilson said he prefers to use his personal devices and email when conducting city business, adding that he receives hundreds of emails and text messages per day and deletes many after the issues are addressed.

“Those texts are deleted for one simple reason, simple brain/bandwidth management,” he said. “I’m a Mac user from 2003, the city is on Windows.

“I’m not hiding anything.”

The city’s records retention policy says it follows the Georgia Secretary of State’s recommendations, which varies from two years to permanent retention depending on the type of document.

“No record shall be destroyed except as provided in the approved retention schedule,” the city’s policy says.

Roswell spokeswoman Julie Brechbill said Wilson does provide emails from his personal account in response to open records requests. She did not say how the city is able to retrieve deleted emails and text messages from the mayor’s personal devices.

Emails deleted from government accounts remain on a city server.

State law requires records retention from personal accounts and devices based on the municipalities’ records retention policy. They also must be turned over in response to open records requests, said Richard T. Griffiths, a spokesman for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

Kurt Wilson, Mayor of Roswell, Natrice Miller /

Credit: Natrice Miller /

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Credit: Natrice Miller /

Emails from the mayor that have been retrieved show he sometimes discusses policy initiatives with selected members of the council.

One email string shows Wilson discussing plans for Canton Street weekend road closures with consultants and councilmembers weeks before residents were informed. Councilmembers Sarah Beeson and Peter Vanstrom were left off the communication.

Wilson wants to create a pedestrian promenade in the restaurant district and close part of the road to vehicular traffic on weekends. Business owners say they will be hurt financially, unless a planned parking deck is built first. Both Beeson and Vanstrom have said they want a well-thought out process and community support before the closures take place.

Separately, Beeson was left out of other emails including a hot-tempered 3 a.m. note the mayor sent to Steve Stroud, executive director of Roswell Inc. in March questioning the organization’s economic development role with the city. Fourteen recipients, including the five other City Council members, were on the email and an apology note sent the following day.

“I’d say it’s a fair criticism to say that transparency is a concern,” Beeson said. “Not everything is transparent to me and I say that as an elected official.”

During public meetings in May on the proposed Canton Street closure, residents and business owners described the mayor as secretive in carrying out city business.

The neighborhood was notified of the project shortly before Wilson made an announcement via a Facebook video in April.

“I’m an open book,” Wilson said. “If I wasn’t transparent, I wouldn’t be ... having very open meetings (regarding Canton Street). Some people are taking wild shots.”

The mayor of Roswell is hearing directly from downtown businesses owners opposed to closing part of Canton Street to vehicular traffic on weekends. Credit Adrianne Murchison

Credit: Adrianne Murchison

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Credit: Adrianne Murchison

‘The bunker’

Wilson hosts meetings with city officials at his home, which is also a source of confusion, residents say.

He calls it “the bunker” and has met with city staff and council members individually there to discuss business, but there has not been a quorum of city council, according to officials.

Wilson says he works 80 to 100 hours per week as mayor and having meetings at his home are the same as holding them at City Hall.

“If I’m having a meeting in a department head’s office or they’re meeting in my office and there’s just two of us or three of us, that’s a private meeting, yes?” he said. “I just don’t simply work here at city hall. I’m not sure if I understand the constraints.”

Andrew I. Cohen, director of the Jean Beer Blumenfeld Center for Ethics at Georgia State University, said conducting business frequently outside of official settings restricts the public’s access to information.

When officials meet in a closed office at City Hall there’s likely a record that the event took place, he said. Outside meetings, such as at the mayor’s home, “restricts people’s access to matters of public concern, and it restricts their opportunity to know the things that matter to them,” Cohen said.

Wilson’s initiatives have occasionally stirred controversy. After taking office, he tried, unsuccessfully, to change the city charter to allow the mayor to have direct authority over city departments instead of the city administrator.

This spring, he supported a change to the open records request process which now requires individuals to show verifiable names and addresses before documents are sent electronically. The measure blocks anonymity of requestors.

In the case of Canton Street, the partial road closure has been put on hold and a taskforce of stakeholders is being formed to work on project plans. Jenna Aronowitz, owner of 1920 Tavern and a spokesperson for nearly all of the Canton Street businesses, said they fear that the city is moving too quickly to close the road.

“The big question is why?” She said. “They still haven’t given us a ‘why’... Get the parking deck done first ... They’ve got the bond referendum. Now do it.”

Wilson’s take

The mayor says he believes much of the criticism he’s received over the issue is “politically charged.” He said he believes the community Facebook group Roswell Truth are his top critics and a former city councilman is their leader.

“Roswell Truth, they have never written anything but adversarial stuff,” Wilson said. “They are subordinates of Matt Judy who’s had no interest but in creating chaos.”

Judy and people associated with Roswell Truth said separately that they have never had any affiliation with each other.

Judy said he only “tangentially” knows Wilson.

“It upsets me to no end that this is where we are in Roswell,” Judy said. “... I find it very reckless for the mayor to make false accusations ... He has never reached out to me to know my personal circumstances or inquire about his accusations.”

A leader of Roswell Truth who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation said the Facebook group started before Wilson was elected and they work to be non-bias while holding officials accountable.

The project to partially close Canton Street on weekends has raised questions of transparency at City Hall. (Courtesy City of Roswell)

Credit: Karen Zitomer

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Credit: Karen Zitomer