A Fulton County Superior Court judge at the last hour Friday saved the jobs of two county staff members after they were told to choose between their employment and their political aspirations, according to an attorney on the case.
Rick Blalock and Robert H. Kelly, both of whom work under District 6 Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman, qualified to run in two separate contested commission races. Blalock, who manages Abdur-Rahman’s communications part time at $51.36 per hour, is running for District 1 in northern Fulton. Kelly, her chief of staff at $133,750 per year, is running for southern Fulton’s District 5.
District 1 Commissioner Liz Hausmann introduced a proposal at Wednesday’s commission meeting barring county employees from running for the commission to “avoid the potential for unfair advantage, conflict of interest, impropriety, or appearance of the same.”
Blalock told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he and Kelly received a letter from the county manager claiming they either had to resign from their positions or withdraw from the race — but couldn’t stay in both positions after 5 p.m. on Friday.
Fulton Superior Court Judge Emily Richardson ruled just before 5 p.m. that the staffers be placed on paid administrative leave until the matter is resolved, said attorney David Betts, who is representing the two men.
“If somebody was a janitor in one of the buildings and decided to run for commissioner, they’d have to quit their job to run for office under this ordinance because it doesn’t differentiate between any position … that’s a bunch of junk,” Betts said.
Richardson when reached by phone Friday confirmed that she had just finished the hearing but declined to give details about her order, as she was currently writing the document.
Charles Bullock, a longtime political expert and University of Georgia professor, said he felt there was no conflict of interest holding a staff job and running for public office. He said staffers can make the argument to voters that they have better insight into the governing process and how to fix it. He also said commissioners may be motivated to pass laws that keep out challengers.
Michael J. Rich, a political science professor at Emory University, said the resolution’s contention that employees “often have access to privileged and confidential information” doesn’t always make sense.
“Incumbents have access to a lot of information challengers don’t have,” he said.
The resolution passed 6-0. District 5 Commissioner Marvin Arrington, Jr. voted for the resolution that pressures a political opponent, Kelly, to quit the race.
Kelly spoke Wednesday during public comment, before the resolution was voted on.
“The reason why people like me are running is that they are tired of you guys doing things like this,” Kelly said. “This is suppression.”
“It sets a bad precedent for it to go unchallenged,” Blalock said, explaining the legal fight.
Hausmann said the code was “murky” about employees running for office and needed to be clarified — she made that decision only days after the two staffers qualified. She said the ballots are already being made for the May primary and the state has until April 1 to finish them, so this needs to be decided soon.
Abdur-Rahman, a community activist whose county biography reads she is the first Muslim woman elected in Georgia, is a newcomer to the board who had her ability to become a commissioner questioned when she ran. She has been at odds with all her fellow commissioners at some point and is the only commissioner openly supporting a candidate challenging the board’s incumbent chairman.
Contacted by phone Friday, Abdur-Rahman said she had asked her colleagues not to go forward with this vote while she was out of town on county business because it affected half of her staff. But she said no one responded before they went ahead with the vote. She said her staffers were in court Friday fighting the new rule.
“This is political pettiness at its worst,” she said.
Betts said the next step is a preliminary hearing March 29 at 9:30 a.m. during which a judge can determine whether to make the injunction permanent or not, meaning the staffers may be able to go back to work.
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Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com