Clayton commission votes to fire county manager

The Clayton County Commission moved swiftly Wednesday in its first meeting of the year to fire the county manager and call for a forensic audit of certain departments.

County Manager Wade Starr’s job ends immediately, but he’ll receive the rest of his employment contract, which is about $90,000.

In other action, the commission postponed a decision on the creation of two new posts, chief financial officer and chief operating officer, until its next meeting.

Starr’s departure and the comprehensive forensic audit serve notice that the newly elected members of the commission are set on fulfilling what they see as a voter mandate for change.

But change didn’t come without pushback Wednesday. Returning Commissioners Gail Hambrick and Sonna Singleton repeatedly voted against numerous agenda items, including Starr’s dismissal and the audit, setting a noticeably divisive tone in the meeting.

Incoming Commission Chairman Jeff Turner, who replaces Eldrin Bell, and fellow newcomer Shana Rooks, who defeated Wole Ralph, joined with returning Commissioner Michael Edmondson to create a majority voting bloc. Edmondson was named vice-chair Wednesday.

“I’m continuing to do what’s best for the county,” Hambrick said during a break in the meeting. “Many (of Wednesday night’s) decisions involve a lot of money. Money that we don’t know what the total is. I’m really concerned about the budget and we’re coming into budget season. We’ve already had an audit done and that one was $160,000 and now they’re asking for another one.”

The meeting, which drew a packed house of more than 200, hit a snag as members of the community expressed concern over the board’s decision to rename the yet-to-open Wole Ralph Recreation Center in Lovejoy. The center, which got its name in a community contest, will now be known as the South Clayton Recreation Center.

Some questioned the decision, citing other facilities that bear the names of former county officials, including some who left office in disgrace. Hambrick pushed to have public comment introduced early in the meeting but Turner, Rooks and Edmondson voted against her request.

“No one is more deserving of having a recreation center than Wole Ralph,” resident Linda Crawley Simmons said. “What reason are you going to give for changing the name?”

Crawley Simmons said she hoped “vindictiveness and backbiting” would not mar the new board’s work.

Overall, members of the community appeared to embrace the makeup of the new board. Turner and Rooks received standing ovations at the start of the meeting.

“I feel great,” Turner said just before the board headed into executive session. “And I’m looking forward to the upcoming year. Obviously, it’s humbling to see I still have the support of the community.”

Wednesday’s meeting is part of a larger overhaul in county leadership as a result of last fall’s election. In addition to the new County Commission members, voters elected a new sheriff as well as three new school board members, tossing out a slate of candidates who ironically rode into office eight years ago on a similar platform of change.

The shakeup comes as Clayton continues to emerge from an economic downturn that has left the county with high unemployment and foreclosures and a shaky school system.