Following stinging criticism from City Council members and employees about her conduct during the COVID-19 pandemic, Fairburn Mayor Elizabeth Carr-Hurst decided Monday to move the city in a new direction.
She hired an image consultant.
Carr-Hurst broke a 3-3 City Council tie to hire Jeff Dickerson, one of the highest profile crisis communication experts in Atlanta, to “really improve the image of the city of Fairburn,” the first-term mayor said.
For the next six months, Dickerson will receive $30,000 to act as public relations for the south Fulton County city of 16,000.
“This contract isn’t about me,” Carr-Hurst said, shortly before she cast the deciding vote. “It’s about the city of Fairburn.”
Carr-Hurst has been a controversial figure since taking the city’s top post January 2018. Several city administrators, city clerks, finance and utilities directors have been hired and quit during her tenure. Recently, she drew complaints for refusing to allow city workers, including administrative employees, to work from home during the worst of the pandemic in March and April, even following the death of a clerk in the police department from the virus.
Her hard line on the topic stood in contrast to the leaders of other metro cities, and she even threatened to fire an employee for asking the City Council to consider a telework policy. The city’s latest administrator quit amid the dispute to reopen.
The press hasn’t been good, and Carr-Hurst said the city needed someone “to toot our horn for us.”
“We have nobody who can write our articles and go out and do the PR for the city of Fairburn,” she said.
Some on the council seemed uninformed about the deal with Dickerson, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial columnist who has represented a number of high-profile politicians in his career. Councilwoman Linda Davis asked who was involved in selecting him for the job.
The mayor seemed to say that she made the decision alone. “There is no one that was involved in this process,” she said.
Carr-Hurst had time to inform the council. A letter of agreement with Dickerson, including in the agenda packet Monday, was dated May 12, a few days after the AJC published its investigation into the mayor’s handling of the pandemic. In the letter, Dickerson promised, among other things, to serve as “a strategic communications advisor to help mitigate public crises.”
Carr-Hurst communication problems are sometimes with her fellow elected officials. Last month, the mayor unexpectedly suspended Fire Chief Cornelius Robinson for several days.
Cuncil members, who were (and still are) working remotely, began receiving calls from constituents and reached out to Carr-Hurst for an explanation. They didn’t get one.
For two days, council members emailed the mayor and each other asking about the suspension, but Carr-Hurst didn’t reply.
“I too want to hear from Mayor Hurst if the alleged suspension of Chief Robinson is true and the reasons why,” Davis wrote. “I am very concerned about the morale of our employees.”
“Mayor Hurst this is so unlike you not to respond,” Councilwoman Hattie Portis-Jones wrote. “I pray that all is well. Is everything okay?”
Carr-Hurst didn’t respond, and Robinson is back on the job with no explanation.
At Monday’s meeting, Davis questioned whether hiring a public relations contractor was the city’s most urgent need.
“We have some challenges internally. We have a lot of employee turnover, I think the morale of the employees could be boosted,” she said.
Davis said if the city was to hire an outside contractor, perhaps it should be someone who could audit human resources. Staff turnover, she said, was the “elephant in the room.”
“We want people to be eager to work here and not come for two months and leave,” she said.
Other council members were more supportive. Councilman James Whitmore said the city has needed a public relations professional for years. The need is more acute now, he said.
“Everybody has seen the articles in the AJC,” he said. “We need a narrative about the city of Fairburn. Period.”
Dickerson’s contract is not part of the city budget, which concerned Portis-Jones.
“What is not going to be funded that we had approved in our budget to pay for our unbudgeted item?” she asked.
Finance director Angela Jackson said the money to pay the contract was being taken from the salary of the currently vacant positions of city administrators and the city administrator’s assistant.
“We were not planning on using those funds for the remainder of the budget year,” Jackson said.
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