Georgia mayor under fire for alleged remarks about black job candidate

Monday, May 06, 2019 @ 6:00 AM
By Chris Joyner - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The mayor of Hoschton, a nearly all-white community 50 miles northeast of Atlanta, allegedly withheld a job candidate from consideration for city administrator because he was black, an AJC investigation has found.

According to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and interviews with city officials, Mayor Theresa Kenerly told a member of the City Council she pulled the resume of Keith Henry from a packet of four finalists “because he is black, and the city isn’t ready for this.”

The AJC’s investigation into the controversy revealed not only a deeply flawed hiring process, but also hard racial attitudes inside Hoschton’s government. All of this occurs as the city of fewer than 2,000 people just outside Gwinnett County is poised for dramatic growth with the construction of thousands of new homes.

Initially, Kenerly would not answer questions about her reported comments, saying she could not publicly talk about matters that occurred in executive session even though the law does not forbid that. “I can’t say I said it or not said it,” she said.

Later, Kenerly issued a statement disputing accounts from other city officials.

“I do not recall making the statement attributed to me regarding any applicant for the City Administrator position, and I deny that I made any statement that suggest (sic) prejudice,” she said.

The candidate, Keith Henry, said he was interviewed by Kenerly over the phone and did not detect bias on the part of the mayor. But as a black man applying for executive government positions in small Southern towns, he said he is not shocked if there was.

“It comes with the territory,” he said. “If you live in America as a minority you can’t be naïve that it is the reality that you face.”

Racial discrimination in hiring has been against federal law since passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Private and public entities, including Hoschton, universally post or have enacted strong employment anti-discrimination statements.

Hoschton’s city code reads: “There shall be no discrimination exercised because of race, national origin, color, religion, creed, age, sex … All personnel actions shall be based solely on individual merit and fitness.”

The mayor reportedly made her comments to a member of the council in an overheard whisper during a closed-door session of the council March 4. Councilwoman Hope Weeks said she repeated them to her in the parking lot after the meeting, according to a document released by the city in response to an open records request from the AJC.

“She proceeded to tell me that the candidate was real good, but he was black and we don’t have a big black population and she just didn’t think Hoschton was ready for that,” Weeks wrote in an account dated March 4.

Weeks confided with Councilwoman Susan Powers, and both women agreed to take the matter to city attorney Thomas Mitchell.

“Both of us were just appalled, so we thought we had to do something to stop it,” Powers said.

Weeks declined to be interviewed on the record, but issued a statement saying she was disappointed in the mayor’s comments about the candidate.

“Mr. Henry was a very professional and qualified candidate who was a finalist for the position of city administrator before withdrawing to accept another position,” she said. “I am thankful for the opportunity to serve the citizens of Hoschton, but this has been one of the most challenging seasons of my life.”

According to a series of emails obtained by the AJC, a deal was made between Mitchell and the city’s five elected officials to continue the hiring process that allowed Kenerly to attend, but not participate, in the interviews.

“She is not going to speak or ask questions,” attorney Mitchell wrote.

The attorney also warned city officials to stop putting their concerns in writing.

“I do not think it in the best interests of the city (or the individual elected officials) to continue emailing in this manner,” he wrote in a March 14 email.

In emails, Powers protested the mayor’s continued involvement in the search for a city administrator.

“Since she corrupted this entire process by trying to shield the application of Mr. Henry from Council members and then making the comment to the effect that while he is qualified he should not be considered because he is black and the city is not ready for this, she should not be a part of this hiring process,” Powers wrote. “I am appalled that in 2019 an applicant would not be hired based solely on the color of their skin.”

Henry, who lives in suburban Houston, Texas, withdrew his candidacy shortly after the March 4 meeting and subsequent phone interview with council members. He said he decided to withdraw for multiple reasons, including the fact that he received another job offer near his family in Texas. He also said Hoschton wanted him to pay his travel, room and board to come for an in-person interview on the promise of reimbursement at a later date, which he considered a red flag. Two of the three other candidates under consideration were local and did not face such an obstacle. The third drove from the Georgia coast at his own expense.

‘Things are different here’

Councilman Jim Cleveland defended the mayor, while confirming many aspects of the story, including that she made a tearful apology in another executive session on March 12. According to accounts from council members, Kenerly said she was “looking out” for Henry because the city does not have a lot of minority residents.

“I was there for that,” Cleveland said. “She cried. She had tears in her eyes. It was in my opinion a very sincere apology.”

Powers said she was unimpressed with the apology. “It was, ‘I’m sorry if I caused you guys trouble,’” she said. “She was apologizing to the council. To me, she shouldn’t be apologizing to us, but to the person she harmed and to the city.”

The AJC asked Kenerly why she apologized and removed herself from the search for a new administrator if she did not make the comments, as she said in her statement to the AJC. She did not respond to those questions.

Councilman Cleveland said he did not think Kenerly was necessarily wrong.

“I understood where she was coming from,” he said. “I understand Theresa saying that, simply because we’re not Atlanta. Things are different here than they are 50 miles down the road.”

Cleveland described Hoschton as “a predominantly white community” not in accord with urban sensibilities about race.

“I don’t know how they would take it if we selected a black administrator. She might have been right,” he said.

Cleveland, a local contractor who has served on the council for a decade, said he had ranked Henry last among the four finalists, not because he is black but because he had not come in for an in-person interview.

“I worked for AT&T for 31 years. I was a manager I probably hired over 100 people myself. I never hired anyone over a phone interview,” he said.

While Cleveland said it was not an issue in his decision on whom to hire, he did share his beliefs about race.

“I’m a Christian and my Christian beliefs are you don’t do interracial marriage. That’s the way I was brought up and that’s the way I believe,” he said. “I have black friends, I hired black people. But when it comes to all this stuff you see on TV, when you see blacks and whites together, it makes my blood boil because that’s just not the way a Christian is supposed to live.”

Poised for growth

Hoschton sits just across the Gwinnett County line in Jackson County, adjacent to the larger city of Braselton. Nearly 90 percent of its residents identify as white. The U.S. Census estimates a non-white population of 201 people.

Photo: Chris Joyner / Chris.Joyner@ajc.com

Downtown Hoschton occupies about two city blocks, but it is ringed with new, partially built subdivisions. In February, Florida-based Kolter Homes announced it had closed on 1,422 acres of land south of Hoschton on which it plans to build a high-end senior citizen community with 2,600 homes.

The development is a signal that the explosive growth of Atlanta’s core suburbs is pushing deeper into areas once considered beyond its influence.

Tonya Akin, owner of Dog Gone Cute Grooming, said she was not aware the city has hunting for a new administrator.

“I’m not into the politics,” she said. But she said he knows the mayor and has had a generally favorable impression of her. That Kenerly would make such a statement about Hoschton’s willingness to accept a black administrator is disappointing, she said.

“I hope they hold her accountable for that,” she said. “I’m not that kind of person. I accept people for who they are.”

Hoschton’s growth is evident in Akin’s dog grooming business. A decade ago, she had a single employee; now she has 10. One morning last week, five groomers were all busy sheering and primping dogs in the spacious storefront. Akin said that growth is going to change things for Hoschton.

“I think Hoschton is finally saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get with the times,’” she said.