Local residents Erica & Anthony Osula (from left) fill out ethics complaints with Jackson County Republican Chair Katie Griffin and Democratic Chair Pete Fuller against Hoschton Mayor Theresa Kenerly and Councilman Jim Cleveland in May. Kenerly came under fire for withholding a candidate from consideration for city administrator because he is black. Cleveland, a Kenerly supporter, said Christian beliefs prevented him from sanctioning interracial marriage. The two politicians are now the target of a recall effort. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Hoschton voters seek recall of officials who sparked racial strife

Residents of the city of Hoschton, a small city northeast of Gwinnett County, worked throughout the summer on plans to force the mayor and a member of the City Council from office using the state’s complicated recall process.

On Wednesday, they will ask a judge to dismiss claims from the politicians that the grounds for recall are baseless so the process can move ahead.

Residents have been pressuring Mayor Theresa Kenerly and Councilman Jim Cleveland to step down since their a controversy about the hiring of a new city administrator and racially charged comments from Cleveland attracted national media attention.

Trouble for Kenerly and Cleveland started in May when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an investigative report on allegations that Kenerly had withheld the resume of a black job candidate for city administrator because of his race, asserting the “city isn’t ready for this.”

The resulting firestorm of national exposure was unlike anything the city had ever experienced, but Kenerly and Cleveland resisted calls to quit. Residents lined up to fill out ethics complaints against the two, but because the city had not named an ethics board, there was no place for the complaints to be heard.

Pete Fuller, chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party, said mounting a recall campaign was the last option.

“Their terms are another three years, so we were looking at several years with that reputation,” he said. Recalling them would allow Hoschton to repair its reputation, he said.

City elections are non-partisan and Fuller said the recall effort has support from Democrats and Republicans alike. Mary Morrison, an African-American resident and chairwoman of the recall committee, said the councilman’s racist comments and the mayor’s alleged actions motivated her to get involved.

“I have two African-American grandsons,” she said. “It would make me so upset to think that they can’t get a job when they get older just because they are black.”

Morrison, who has lived in Hoschton for four decades, said she has always felt accepted by her neighbors. Her husband, who is black, served on the City Council in the late 1980s. His brother was the first black teacher in the neighboring city of Braselton, she said.

“I was actually surprised. This is the kind of thing that happens when you … get relaxed,” she said. “I just have never known this side of the racial divide before. That’s why I was so appalled. We are good enough to do your service work but not good enough to be your city administrator?”

Mayor Theresa Kenerly reacts during public hearing and regular meeting at Hoschton Train Depot in Hoschton on May 30, 2019. Mayor Theresa Kenerly and Councilman Jim Cleveland have been under fire for racist comments regarding the handling of a black candidate for city administrator in March. The two politicians are now the target of a recall effort. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Comments spark controversy

According to documents and interviews with multiple sources by the AJC, Mayor 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.”

Kenerly denied making the statements, but several council members interviewed by the AJC described her tearful apology made to them in closed session.

In the same AJC report, Cleveland, a Kenerly ally, came to mayor’s defense, saying she was “looking out” for the city.

“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 pointed out that Hoschton is “a predominantly white community,” then shared his own views on race.

“I’m a Christian and my Christian beliefs are you don’t do interracial marriage,” 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.”

Councilman Jim Cleveland reacts during public hearing and regular meeting at Hoschton Train Depot in Hoschton on Thursday, May 30, 2019. Mayor Theresa Kenerly and Councilman Jim Cleveland have been under fire for racist comments regarding the handling of a black candidate for city administrator in March. The two politicians are now the target of a recall effort. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Recalls often stall

Recalling an elected official in Georgia is a multi-step process, the first of which was to get at least 100 residents who were registered to vote when Kenerly and Cleveland were last elected to sign up as “sponsors” of the effort. Following that, the Jackson County Election Board issued a recall petition, which requires the signatures of at least 30% of currently registered voters.

Kenerly and Cleveland are challenging the petition, claiming the grounds are not legally sufficient for a recall election.

“We’re going to have a hearing,” Cleveland said in an interview last week. “We’ll see where it goes it from there.”

Recall campaigns are tremendous long shots. Efforts usually stall out over obtaining enough signatures on petitions or for failure to state legally sufficient grounds.

While the Hoschton recall application cites the controversy around the hiring of a city administrator and Cleveland’s comments as among its reasons for the recall, it also cites the pair for their alleged roles in a no-bid contract for the construction of a city stage and the rehabilitation of a community building adjacent to City Hall known as “Hosch Hall.”

Opponents claim Kenerly and Cleveland steered the contracts to an employee of Cleveland’s construction business, rather than having it competitively bid. Cleveland denies there was anything improper, although he said he and his employee did the work, alongside some city employees. Cleveland said he took no payment for his work.

“I’ve donated thousands of dollars of my labor to the city. If I charged my normal $45 an hour to the city no telling how much I would have charged,” he said.

Shantwon Astin speaks about Hoschton Mayor Theresa Kenerly following a city council meeting at the Hoschton Historic Train Depot in Hoschton, Monday, May 6, 2019. Astin is one of two newcomers now running for City Council. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

New faces moved to run

Amid the turmoil, two residents — one white and one black — are running for City Council as part of an effort to repair the city’s tainted image.

Residents Shantwon Astin and Adam Ledbetter are running for council this fall. Astin, who is black, said Kenerly and Cleveland have themselves to blame for the turmoil the city has gone through.

“It would have never gotten this far if they had done the correct thing and put their egos aside and resigned,” said Astin. “When you fail to service the people the of the city you should resign.”

Council elections are conducted citywide, with seats allotted to the top vote getters. This year, there is one open seat and a contested seat, with incumbent Mindi Kiewert running for reelection.

Although technically they are opponents, Ledbetter, who is white, said he and Astin bonded over the troubles facing the city and are campaigning together.

“We just talked about it and said we are going to run,” he said. “We need honest government officials who have integrity.”

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