Lovejoy Mayor Bobby Cartwright is as much at home shucking corn or astride a tractor in the city’s 14-acre garden as he is presiding over city council meetings.
It’s among the many tasks he has taken on as the top elected official of this town of more than 6,300 near the southern tip of Clayton County.
Not only is he the mayor, he also oversees the daily goings-on of 30 employees and a $3.8 million budget, a combination that has raised some eyebrows but pays Cartwright handsomely. Cartwright temporarily took on the role of city manager a few years ago. Since then, it has become a more permanent arrangement with the blessing of the city council, though perhaps not Georgia law, depending on whose interpretation you follow.
Residents and council members appear happy with the 55-year-old Cartwright who sports a handlebar mustache and prefers suspenders and jeans to a suit-and-tie.
There’s no standing on ceremony or rank at City Hall. If the garden needs lumber or the City Hall has run out of supplies, it’s usually Cartwright who makes the supply run. At a recent city council meeting, residents looking to bend his ear referred to him as “Bobby” instead of “Mayor.” The absence of governmental hierarchy and titles, combined with Cartwright’s affable manner, has a lot to do with why he’s running unopposed for another term some say.
“There’s no one else to do a lot of this stuff whether it’s going to the Dollar store to get paper towels or going to Home Depot to pick up items for the garden or construction, I’m usually the one to do it,” said Cartwright who plans to take his first vacation since he’s been mayor - a two-week fishing trip off the coast of Florida - next month.
He’s also well-regarded among other mayors in Clayton. The Clayton County Municipal Association bestowed him with the Mayor of the Year award last year.
“Mayor Cartwright has done a helluva job,” said Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon, a member of the municipal association. “He’s revitalized the community with economic growth. He and his council have connected with the community. Before he took over, the city was dying. He’s turned it around.”
But a turnaround in the city’s fiscal fortunes hasn’t kept some from questioning Cartwright’s $116,000 paycheck and whether he has too much unchecked power.
“How can an official hold two positions in the same town?” Resident Art Greene said. “He has two positions and he can overrule without having other people to speak or decide on it. He has power that the community doesn’t even know he has.”
Meanwhile, Greene said the streets in his neighborhood haven’t been repaved in the decade he’s lived there.
By law, elected officials in Georgia can’t hold a municipal job at the same time they’re in office. But the law appears open to interpretation. Other cities like Jasper and Austell have mayors who also serve as city managers.
“He’s violating the law,” said Clint Murphy, chairman of Common Cause of Georgia, a nonprofit government watchdog group. “To me, it’s just a slippery slope. What else are you doing? It’s way more than just being the mayor.”
Cartwright defended his dual role for which gets $6,000 a year as mayor and $110,000-a-year as city manager.
“I’m not an employee. I hold a professional contract,” Cartwright told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I don’t get annual leave or sick days. They don’t take out taxes. There’s a distinction between being an employee and an independent contractor. It’s beneficial because I’m in a working and decision-making role.”
Employment law expert Rick Warren also questioned Cartwright’s contractual arrangement with Lovejoy.
“It seems hard to envision how a city manager, under most tests, would not be treated as an employee rather than an independent contractor no matter what the agreement between the parties say,” said Warren, partner at the Atlanta employment law firm of Ford & Harrison.
The issue recently prompted Lovejoy city officials to take to the city’s website to explain how Cartwright wound up in the role and why it works.
Cartwright volunteered to fill in as city manager after the last one left several years ago. The arrangement proved satisfactory. The council offered him a one-year contract in November 2012 at $62,500. That contract has since been renewed several times, the most recent was in July for $110,000 a year.
“The city council has unanimously voted to issue the city manager contract to the mayor to do the work and the city ordinances and charter and any other governing law for the city doesn’t disallow it,” Lovejoy city attorney L’Erin Barnes told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Councilman Tommy Green said the council’s arrangement with Cartwright is above board.
“We made sure we had processes in place and that it worked fine,” Lovejoy Councilman Tommy Green said.
In Cartwright’s time as mayor, Lovejoy has enjoyed several successes. Free senior citizen breakfasts. The five annual block parties are free. So is the annual fall festival which recently featured R&B artists The SOS Band and drew more than 5,000 people. Cartwright made good on his promise by opening a store in May at the garden site where residents can get their free monthly allotment of fresh vegetables. Those who want more can buy produce at a steep discount. Clayton residents are given the next lowest cost option and the general public can buy produce wholesale.
When Cartwright took over as mayor in March 2012, Lovejoy was running a deficit of about $500,000. Today, it has a surplus of more than $1 million.
Cartwright, who has served on the city council for 13 years, bristles at the criticism over his dual roles.
“If there’s questions, they’re not coming here,” he said.
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