As Fairburn mourns loss of colleague, mayor defends order to work on

‘One thing I can’t do is pay you to sit at home every day and not do anything,’ says mayor of southern Fulton city.

Last month, as schools, governments and businesses told employees to work from home to stop the coronavirus, Cheryl Catron wondered why she had to be inside the Fairburn Police Department instead of doing her clerical work remotely.

“Her concern was, why did they have to go into work?” said Stacie Arnold, Catron’s cousin and a close friend.

Some days after they spoke, Catron came home from her job as a civilian administrative aide sick enough that she just laid on the couch, Arnold said. It was Wednesday, April 1. The next day her mother told her she needed to see a doctor. She promised to go Friday.

By then, Catron was found unresponsive in her Riverdale home and put on a hospital ventilator. The 57-year-old grandmother died of COVID-19 and complications of diabetes shortly before midnight on April 3, hours after Gov. Brian Kemp ordered all Georgians to shelter in place to slow the spread of the virus.

Throughout the pandemic, local governments have largely decided for themselves how to manage their own people. Fairburn Mayor Elizabeth Carr-Hurst adopted a particularly hard line, according to emails and records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Carr-Hurst flatly rejected a plea from the city’s top manager to allow employees to telework on March 16.

“The city has no ‘telework’ policy,” she emailed Dennis Stroud, the city administrator. “Systems must be in place in order for telework to be done efficiently.”

Five days later, the mayor threatened to fire an employee who emailed the City Council asking it to allow employees to work from home, as other surrounding cities had done.

“The next time I will dismiss her on the spot,” she emailed Stroud.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE | Coronavirus in Georgia

Even after Catron’s death, which forced her colleagues in the police department to self-quarantine, Carr-Hurst ordered all 185 city employees to report back to work April 10 before some had even finished the required 14-day isolation.

“There (are) no exceptions to this requirement,” the email from the mayor stated.

Fairburn is an outlier in metro Atlanta, as the major cities in the region for weeks have allowed most employees to work remotely, according to the AJC’s reporting.

In an interview, Carr-Hurst told the AJC the city had no provisions for allowing employees to work remotely, and she expressed little patience with those she described as “disgruntled.” She said workers have their temperature taken when they come in, and the office is treated with Clorox wipes two to three times a day.

Employees who are too concerned to return to work can file for unemployment, she said.

“They get hazard pay, so what else do you want? I mean, I can only do so much,” she said. “One thing I can’t do is pay you to sit at home every day and not do anything.”

The mayor’s posture is cold comfort for Catron’s family, who describe their family member as a loving person whose gift for organization made her a central figure in her community. Arnold said her cousin helped plan parties and reunions for alumni of Southwest High School and the Bush Mountain neighborhood in southwest Atlanta, where they grew up.

"She brought people together everywhere she went," Arnold said. "She had a smile that would light the room. She shined on everyone."

Prior to working for Fairburn, Catron had done clerical work for the Atlanta Braves, Hawks and Thrashers. Arnold said the Hawks sent flowers to Catron’s family even though she had not worked for the team in more than a decade.

ExploreRead and sign the online guestbook for Cheryl Catron

Precautions in other cities

Carr-Hurst has been a polarizing figure in Fairburn, population 16,000, since assuming office in January 2018. In August 2019, the AJC published an investigation into the high turnover of senior managers under her leadership, and a nasty personal dispute with a fellow city council member that spilled into the open.

The coronavirus pandemic has raised fresh questions about the mayor’s leadership.

As coronavirus spread in Georgia and Carr-Hurst demanded Fairburn employees come to work, other municipalities took a more cautious path to protect the health and safety of staff.

Union City, Fairburn’s similarly sized south Fulton neighbor, has had fewer than 10 of its 207 employees at City Hall on a staggered schedule since March 23, said spokeswoman Vivian Lett. In normal times, East Point has about 75 workers in City Hall, but the city has had fewer than 10 in the building since March 16, said spokeswoman Shannon Wiggins.

Three or four people a day come to work at the city of Alpharetta’s multi-level municipal offices to serve a city four times the size of Fairburn.

“We spun up a full-blown teleworking plan rapidly,” said Alpharetta spokesman and assistant city administrator James Drinkard. He said all but 20 of their 450 city employees are working, and those who can’t are on administrative leave with pay.

He said the three or four who come to City Hall are doing IT work or finances. But basically everyone can have a floor to themselves to socially distance.

Drinkard said city offices shut down on March 23. He said they had to get laptops to help staff telework, but they were up and running by the second week.

‘We were exposed’

The April 10 memo from the mayor ordering all Fairburn employees back to work, sent out by the city’s personnel director, instructed administrators to “make an effort to keep the workplace safe and high-functioning” and provide disinfectants and protective gear “to the extent of availability.”

The announcement alarmed some city workers, especially those who worked alongside Catron. The order to return to their offices came just a week after her death.

"I don't understand," one worker wrote in a text chain obtained by the AJC. "We were exposed and have not completed ordered quarantine from the CDC."

Another asked if anyone had received the results from their coronavirus test. “Not yet,” a third employee responded.

A few hours later, the same administrators received another email putting the plans on hold, but city employees, who spoke to the AJC on condition on anonymity out of fear of losing their jobs, said they have since been instructed to return to their pre-pandemic schedules. Those employees said they were concerned about their health, but unsure about what they can do.

After pausing a week, Carr-Hurst had employees back on their full schedule starting April 20, but exactly how many employees are reporting to Fairburn’s 6,500-square-foot City Hall is unclear. The mayor said the number is nine — including her and her secretary — but two city employees contacted after the mayor’s AJC interview said that number is low and doesn’t include employees who work off-site in maintenance and utilities.

While the mayor said no employee is coming in against their will, the AJC spoke to several employees who said they only complied to save their jobs. One worker who spoke to the AJC has health issues that make COVID-19 especially dangerous for them. But that worker was in the office full-time.

Remote work for council

Some in Fairburn are working remotely. The City Council is working from a distance, holding its meetings via teleconference and leaving decisions on the city’s workforce up to Carr-Hurst.

“We’re just praying. We’re hoping for the best. We want this pandemic to end, and we’re praying we don’t have any other occurrences,” said Councilman James Whitmore.

Councilman Pat Pallend said he is not comfortable with forcing scared employees back into cramped city offices until it’s clear the danger has passed.

“But how do we get it resolved?” he said. “I suspect the city attorney needs to stick his nose in this.”

Other council members either didn’t return calls seeking comment or declined to speak on the record about the mayor’s decisions.

Carr-Hurst said the decision on when to order employees to come back was made in consultation with the council.

"We're all in this together. It's not just me," she said. "If the city of Fairburn is put out there in a bad light, the council members are, too."

City Attorney Randy Turner also defended the decision as a reasonable approach for a small city with few employees “with specialized responsibilities.”

“Yes, essential employees of the city of Fairburn are reporting to work every day and their dedication in the face of these difficult times should be commended,” he said. “And the city has been diligent in providing those employees with the safest work environment possible.”

Rash of resignations

Carr-Hurst’s approach to managing the city during the pandemic has taken a toll on staff.

City Administrator Stroud, a former revenue director for the city of Atlanta, resigned March 30 following series of intensely critical emails from the mayor. Stroud took the top job in Fairburn in December and was the city’s third administrator since Carr-Hurst took over a mayor in January 2018. The first lasted nine months, while the second lasted less than two months.

Along with Stroud, the directors of the city’s utilities and finance departments, each of whom had been on the receiving end of Carr-Hurst’s ire, also quit. The result is that in the middle of an unprecedented crisis, Fairburn is trying to replace critical pieces of its administrative staff.

That kind of turmoil is characteristic of Carr-Hurst's tenure. An AJC investigation last year detailed allegations of bullying and intimidation against Carr-Hurst and a revolving door of top administrators, some of whom only stayed a few weeks before quitting.

READ | Metro Atlanta governments expect $600M in coronavirus aid

Speaking to the AJC last week, Carr-Hurst was optimistic, in part because of Kemp’s moves last week to reopen the state, loosening the bans on businesses like dine-in restaurants and bowling alleys, and her belief that the rest of Kemp’s restrictions would not last much longer.

At 70, Carr-Hurst is part of the population considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be at a high risk to contract the virus, but the mayor said she is not afraid.

“I can’t be scared. I’m a Christian. And so because I’m a Christian, God doesn’t give me the spirit of fear,” she said. “I’m not crazy, I’m not going to run out of here and do crazy things, but I don’t have the spirit of fear right now. I have to do what I have to do, and I’m going to do it.”

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