Concerned citizens attend public hearing and regular meeting at Hoschton Train Depot in Hoschton on Thursday, May 30, 2019. Mayor Theresa Kenerly and Councilman Jim Cleveland have been under fire for comments regarding the handling of a black candidate for city administrator in March. Last week, dozens of citizens filled out ethics complaint forms in a new attempt to force them from office. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Hoschton officials mum while residents demand their ouster for racism

For weeks, residents in and around the small town of Hoschton have called on the mayor and a city councilman to resign over the racially charged hiring of a city administrator, but the two have given no one reason to believe they are leaving.

On Thursday, people from the city of about 2,000 in Jackson County filled Hoschton’s small train depot to again threaten, cajole and even beg Mayor Theresa Kenerly and Councilman Jim Cleveland to quit.

“The greatest gift and sacrifice you two could give the city of Hoschton, if you truly love our town like you repeatedly say you do, would be to leave your posts and allow the city to not only heal, but to thrive,” said former Mayor Erma Denney, who spoke during the public comment period of the council work session.

Kenerly and Cleveland have weathered calls for their resignations in the weeks since, in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation, Kenerly was accused of sidetracking a candidate for city administrator because of his race.

City attorney Thomas Mitchel speaks as Councilman Jim Cleveland (left) and Mayor Theresa Kenerly (right) listen during public hearing and regular meeting at Hoschton Train Depot in Hoschton on Thursday, May 30, 2019. Mayor Theresa Kenerly and Councilman Jim Cleveland have been under fire for comments regarding the handling of a black candidate for city administrator in March. Last week, dozens of citizens filled out ethics complaint forms in a new attempt to force them from office. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Thursday’s meeting was the first since an abbreviated 15-minute meeting May 6 in which Kenerly and Cleveland, flanked by armed sheriff’s deputies, left without addressing the controversy. Cleveland did engage in an angry debate with some residents in the parking lot which was captured by a bystander on cell phone video.

No member of city government responded to the series of speakers Thursday. City Attorney Thomas Mitchell, reading prepared remarks, said the mayor and council  had been advised not to speak because of a possible lawsuit.

According to documents and multiple interviews with city officials, Kenerly told council members in March that she initially withheld the resume of Keith Henry, a finalist for the job, because “he is black, and the city isn’t ready for this.” In coming to her defense, Cleveland told the AJC that he “understood where she was coming from,” and then added his opinion that whites and blacks should not marry.

“I have black friends, I hired black people. But when it comes to all this stuff you see on TV, when you see blacks and whites together, it makes my blood boil because that’s just not the way a Christian is supposed to live,” he said.

Cleveland walked back his comments somewhat, saying he is much more tolerant and that his statements reflected his earlier views. However, he said he still opposes interracial marriage.

Kenerly has not spoken publicly about the comments, but she did issue a statement denying making any statements that “suggest prejudice.” However, Henry said he received an unsolicited call from the mayor in which she apologized for the scandal while saying she was looking out for the city’s best interests.

Sherry Coulombe expresses her concern as Councilman Jim Cleveland (right) during public hearing and regular meeting at Hoschton Train Depot in Hoschton on Thursday, May 30, 2019. Mayor Theresa Kenerly and Councilman Jim Cleveland have been under fire for comments regarding the handling of a black candidate for city administrator in March. Last week, dozens of citizens filled out ethics complaint forms in a new attempt to force them from office. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

For some, Cleveland’s comments were unforgivable.

“You may have made a mistake, and I can understand that,” said Ron Johnson, a Jackson County Republican Party official, said to Kenerly. “But when your ally came over here with a backhoe and dug a hole and kept digging a hole, Hoschton became national news for being racist.”

Turning to Cleveland, Johnson said, “You are disgusting to believe those beliefs in this day and age.”

Last week, residents lined up in a rented room next to City Hall to file ethics complaints against the duo in an event jointly organized by the leaders of the Jackson County Republican and Democratic parties. According to Democratic Party chairman Pete Fuller, residents filed 43 complaints against Kenerly and 42 against Cleveland.

Shantwon Astin expresses his concern during public hearing and regular meeting at Hoschton Train Depot in Hoschton on Thursday, May 30, 2019. Mayor Theresa Kenerly and Councilman Jim Cleveland have been under fire for comments regarding the handling of a black candidate for city administrator in March. ‘Do the right thing so this city can move on,’ Astin told the two. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The crowd at Thursday’s meeting was more diverse than the overwhelmingly white city, and some speakers had come from Jefferson, the county seat, to attend. Hoschton resident Shantwon Astin, who is black, came with his family to ask Kenerly and Cleveland “to do the right thing” and leave office.

Astin said he loved Hoschton, which he described as his “little piece of paradise.” But the controversy in City Hall shocked him, he said.

“This is my home. This is my town. This is where I come home to every day,” he said. “Do the right thing so this city can move on.”

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