Cobb County’s new communications director has had a long career as a political consultant and in June worked on a campaign fund-raising event for Commission Chairman Tim Lee, selecting the venue and producing a “tribute” video of the chairman.
The Cobb Commission voted 3-1 last month to hire Sheri Kell as the county’s $110,000-a-year spokeswoman. In addition to having a direct tie to Lee’s campaign, Kell’s mother-in-law has served as Lee’s campaign chairperson since 2009.
Kell is also a partner with the consulting firm COMM360 and has worked on campaigns to pass the county’s special purpose sales tax levies, and on the failed 2012 regional T-SPLOST initiative. Kell served as spokeswoman for Attorney General Sam Olens’ campaigns in 2010 and 2014.
Kell, 52, said she is a partner “in name only” at COMM360, which is a firm founded by attorney and political consultant Heath Garrett. It would be a conflict of interest for Kell to work for county government and have financial interest in a company that campaigns on behalf of county political issues.
“I have never had an ownership stake,” Kell said. “I am currently working to permanently remove myself from all client work and my presence on the COMM360 website will be removed before I start with the county.”
Commissioner Bob Ott voted against hiring Kell because of her political activity, but said he’s sure that it won’t continue in her new role.
“She’s very intelligent, and I expect she knows what needs to be done,” Ott said. “Clearly, she wouldn’t be able to operate (politically) as the county’s communications director.”
Kell is married to Superior Court Judge LaTain Kell, who last year recused himself as the judge presiding over validation of the county’s bonds for construction of SunTrust Park.
LaTain Kell wrote in a letter to attorneys that he stepped away from the case because he is a board member of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce. Legal experts told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his mother’s position with Lee’s campaign could also be considered a conflict.
Lee cast the deciding vote in hiring Sheri Kell. Commissioner Lisa Cupid was absent, and it takes three votes to pass any measure before the county commission.
Lee would not grant the AJC an interview for this story. But in an email exchange, Lee wrote that Kell was hired as a “subcontractor” for his campaign event, and political affiliations had nothing to do with her being hired.
Lee and County Manager David Hankerson interviewed four candidates recommended by a committee of county employees. Lee said Hankerson then recommended Kell for the job.
“While Carole Kell has been listed on my disclosure forms since 2009, her name does not denote a role that requires her to be active in my campaign,” Lee wrote in an email, which was provided to the AJC through a spokeswoman in his office. “I have had absolutely zero discussions with her regarding (Sheri) Kell’s application for the position. Neither did anyone associated with my campaign suggest (Sheri) Kell be the candidate selected for the job.
“Not one person tried to influence my vote, which was based solely on Sheri Kell’s credentials, performance in the selection process, and most importantly, based on the County Manager’s recommendation that she be appointed as communications director.”
Not everyone is convinced. West Cobb resident Tom Cheek said Lee should have recused himself from voting because of the Kell family’s political ties. Cheek last year filed an ethics complaint against Lee that went to a trial-like hearing, before he dropped the case after Lee apologized.
Cheek has asked Lee to have the commission re-vote on hiring Kell and that he refrain from voting. Cheek said he is considering an ethics complaint if that doesn’t happen.
“I’m not stating that Sheri Kell isn’t qualified; I’m stating that Lee should not have voted,” Cheek said. “As soon as Hankerson made a choice, Lee should have backed out of the process and let the four district commissioners decide.”