Both resignations follow an AJC investigation launched seven months ago into claims that an African American candidate for city administrator was sidetracked by Mayor Theresa Kenerly because of his race.
Both long-serving officials had weathered calls for their resignation and a bipartisan campaign that would have put the question before voters in a recall vote next month.
According to interviews and subsequent court testimony, Kenerly held back the resume of the only black finalist for the job. She later told a council member she did so because "the city isn't ready for this."
Before his resignation, Cleveland defended the mayor’s conduct. “I understood where she was coming from,” he said. “I understand Theresa saying that, simply because we’re not Atlanta. Things are different here than they are 50 miles down the road.”
“I’m glad that it’s over,” said Pete Fuller, chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party. “I think this is probably the best resolution we could have. It has brought a lot of people together. It has helped show there are more people who are not bigoted, are not stuck in the past, and it shows that Hoschton and Jackson County as a whole is changing and has changed.”
Members of both the Jackson County Republican and Democratic parties called for both officials to leave office.
Joe Vogt, one of nearly 40 residents who packed the council chambers, said after the resignation that he was expecting and hoping for it.
“I’ve been asking in open sessions that she consider resigning, primarily because of the things that she had been accused of doing. It represented a liability for the city,” Vogt said. “I felt the reputation of the city was more important that her personal interests.”
When it became clear that neither Cleveland nor Kenerly would resign, residents organized a recall campaign to force them from office. Earlier this month, that campaign cleared its final legal hurdle when the Jackson County Board of Elections called a recall election for Jan. 14.
Kenerly appealed the recall campaign with the Georgia Supreme Court. The court declined to hear her petition.
Another resignation was on the agenda for discussion Saturday: Dale Hall, the city's current city administrator. However, the council voted to remove Hall instead of accepting his resignation.
It is ironic that the controversy began over the hiring of a city administrator and appears to have ended with the firing of the man selected for that job.
Councilman Adam Ledbetter said Hall was fired “for cause,” but would not say why, citing confidential personnel issues. Asked about a severance package in Hall's employment contract, Ledbetter said Hall “will not receive a dime of severance if it is up to us.”
The controversy involving Kenerly and Cleveland caused a major upheaval in city politics. In November, voters elected Ledbetter and Shantwon Astin to seats on the City Council, forcing out another of Kenerly’s allies at City Hall. Ledbetter, who is white, and Astin, who is black, campaigned together on restoring the reputation of the city.
Ledbetter, who was elected mayor pro tem when Cleveland resigned, said the Kenerly’s resignation is “very long overdue.” With just over a month in office, Ledbetter will take over as acting mayor, a bigger job than ever with the resignation of the city administrator.
“I have a strong support group who have helped me get to the place I am now. They are going to continue to help me,” he said.
Astin said those left on the council recognize there will be challenges ahead.
“I think we can’t go anywhere but forward and we have to move forward together.”
Councilwoman Hope Weeks, the one elected official in the city with any tenure, said she is relieved by the mayor’s decision to resign rather than face recall.
“I’m really looking forward to 2020,” she said. “We’ve got some great people on staff and we will be up to the challenge. We are all going to grow and learn so much over the next few months.”
Ledbetter said he only intends to hold the position of pro tem until the council meets in January, when he expects to hand over the duties to the more experienced Weeks. He said he took the position as a strategic move until Kenerly’s resignation so Weeks would not be accused of seeking the mayor’s seat.
Voters will have a change to elect a new mayor and fill Cleveland’s vacant seat in a special election held at the same time as Georgia's party primaries.
In other business, the council authorized City Attorney Thomas Mitchell to file an action in Jackson County Superior Court to suspend the operation of provision of the charter that prohibits the mayor pro-tem from voting as a council member while serving as mayor to ensure the council has three votes during its meetings.