Brookhaven withheld public documents about former mayor

After a city employee accused former Brookhaven Mayor J. Max Davis of sexual harassment, officials kept it quiet, bucking Georgia’s sunshine laws.

Finally, after a battle with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other news outlets over public records, on Friday the city released documents that show public officials had issued false public statements about the complaint and altered a key document.

At the time of the public statements, Davis was embarking on his campaign for a state House seat. City Attorney Tom Kurrie said that isn’t why he held back documents for four weeks after finishing his internal investigation of the complaint. Rather, he said he needed time for legal research, to confer with his law partners, and to finish his investigative report.

“It would have been better, probably, if I was able to have done it earlier,” he said. “It is what it is.”

He and Davis defend statements in a May news release that cleared the mayor of wrongdoing and said, “Neither of the employees involved claimed or inferred that this incident involving the mayor was sexual or harassing in nature.”

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Later in the news release, Kurrie is quoted saying, “There has been no claim or complaint filed by anyone, employee or otherwise, alleging sexual harassment by the Mayor.”

City documents about the February incident show otherwise, that both Kurrie and Davis were aware sexual harassment had been alleged.

The records say Davis was accused of spraying an aerosol product on a woman’s buttocks while she was working at city hall, making her “very upset.” The mayor told the flustered woman he was just joking. Both the sprayed woman and a witness reported the mayor to the city manager the next day, the witness later saying that “she considered the Mayor’s action to be sexual harassment,” according to the city attorney’s investigative notes.

Kurrie and Davis said that in their estimation, two women verbally reporting to the city manager that the mayor sprayed one of them in the backside with an aerosol product does not constitute an official claim of sexual harassment.

Even though records show both the witness and the city manager used those words, Kurrie said the sprayed woman herself never used the terms.

“Those were not the victim, and the victim did not do that at all,” Kurrie said. “And those were opinions.”

Davis characterized the incident as “a joke that obviously wasn’t received well.” He said he went into an office where the two women were talking and only sprayed the can of air freshener into the air to see what it smelled like. He has denied aiming for the woman’s backside.

Davis acknowledged playing a role in crafting the news release, and he still insists that it was accurate, citing a conversation he’d had with City Manager Marie Garrett. She did not return calls from the AJC.

“The only information I had,” Davis said, “was I asked our city manager, had these two ladies made a claim of sexual harassment against me. She said, emphatically, no.”

“So that’s why I made my statement, because as far as I was concerned, nobody had, and nobody still has.”

The same day the city issued the news release, in response to an open records request from the AJC and the online Brookhaven Post, Kurrie released a heavily-redacted email from Garrett to Human Resources Director Rick Stone. That email vaguely revealed the the mayor had been accused of spraying a woman with Lysol and making her “very uncomfortable.”

Beneath the black ink was the accusation that Davis sprayed the woman in the buttocks, as well as this statement by Garrett: “I believe that the Mayor took a liberty and crossed the line doing something that I consider to be sexual harassment.”

Davis’ own written statement to Kurrie shows he was aware of Garrett’s assessment. He said that in the conversation with her where he asked what the women had alleged, he questioned Garrett about using the term “sexual harassment” in her email. She told him she thought his alleged behavior could be just that.

The redactions weren’t the only alteration to the first version of the city manager’s email that Kurrie released. Text in the email was moved and covered with white space, so that the email appeared much shorter than it actually is. What was made to appear as the first paragraph was actually the eighth paragraph of a longer email complaining about a hostile work environment allegedly created by the mayor.

City Councilman John Park has been urging Kurrie and other council members to release the full record since mid-May, saying the city could be in violation of the law against altering or falsifying public documents.

“We shouldn’t put out false information,” Park told the AJC.

The version of the email released Friday still has redactions that the AJC is disputing.

Davis, Brookhaven’s first mayor, is vying to replace Mike Jacobs, who stepped down as state representative in House District 80 to become a DeKalb County State Court judge. The election is July 14.

Davis was instrumental in convincing voters to carve Brookhaven out of a section of north DeKalb in 2012, touting good government and transparency. His platform for the House seat includes cleaning up the DeKalb government through stronger ethics rules and changing the form of government to stop the succession of scandals.

Trey Benton, who has been covering the city of 50,000 since its inception as editor and owner of The Brookhaven Post, said Brookhaven’s track record doesn’t reflect a concern for transparency and ethics. “It goes against everything that they say that they want to be,” he said.

New Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams promised a review of the city’s open records practices and retraining for employees. “We will do better,” she said.

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