Mayor Elizabeth Carr-Hurst leads the City Council work session and council meeting on Monday, August 12, 2019, in Fairburn. Former employees say the mayor has used fear and intimidation to push out those who disagree with her. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Mayor’s approach, ethics roil Fairburn

In January 2018, Fairburn City Councilwoman Elizabeth Carr-Hurst became mayor of this bedroom community of 15,500 in south Fulton County, and stepped into a part-time job paying $18,000 a year.

The town hasn’t been the same since.

In 18 months, terminations or resignations have claimed many top staffers, including two city administrators, a finance director, city clerk, utility director, and other top-level personnel. The city has spent thousands on recruiting and hiring, only to see the new hires last a few weeks.

Current and former city employees and officials claim the mayor has bullied and intimidated top staffers into resigning, while spending thousands of dollars on travel and more than $75,000 redecorating City Hall.

Now she is fighting an ethics complaint filed by another elected official who claims the mayor threatened her following a city meeting. The previously unreported incident, which The Atlanta Journal-Constitution learned about through an open records request, allegedly required the police chief to intervene and physically restrain Carr-Hurst.

Carr-Hurst rejects all criticisms of her leadership and denies being a bully, calling herself “a very professional woman.”

“People change when new administrators come on board,” she said. “I’ve seen it happen again and again.”

Councilwoman Hattie Portis-Jones (left) works at her seat as Mayor Elizabeth Carr-Hurst (right) arrives for the City Council work session and council meeting on Monday, August 12, 2019, in Fairburn. In an ethics complaint, Portis-Jones accused the mayor of fostering a “political environment of incivility, threats, attempted bodily harm and execution of bodily harm.” CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

But in a region that embraces small government and local control, experts say Fairburn’s turmoil shows what can happen when residents disengage with local politics and stop paying attention to what officials do at City Hall. It’s a cautionary tale not just for small cities but for large ones as well, as voter participation declineslocal media coverage shrinks and what information voters do get is viewed as partisan and suspect.

In 2017, Carr-Hurst was the only candidate to qualify to replace outgoing Mayor Mario Avery. Just 16% of registered voters cast ballots in the election that put her in office.

That level of voter participation is in line with what researchers have found across the country. A 2016 study found fewer than 15% of eligible voters turn out for local elections nationwide. That study found the median age of local election voters is 57, meaning very few young voters cast ballots in local races.

“We have, I would argue, a crisis in American democracy where every election is a spectator’s sport,” said Phil Keisling, a former secretary of state for Oregon and a fellow at Portland State’s Center for Public Service.

Keisling said holding municipal elections in off years, combined with declining media coverage of local elections and a general lack of trust in government at all levels, has voters less engaged in local issues.

That can mean nobody is watching when things go bad.

A motorist passes by the Welcome to City of Fairburn sign at the edge of town, with the city’s motto of ‘Situated to Succeed’. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Report: hostile work environment

The upheaval at Fairburn’s City Hall seems at odds with the sleepy suburb that sits in the shadows of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Its quaint downtown is bisected by railroad tracks, and it’s probably best known to Atlantans as the home to the Georgia Renaissance Festival and for the I-85 exit it shares with Peachtree City.

The city has an industrial base of warehousing and logistics companies tied to the airport and the nearby CSX rail yard, but most of its residents commute to Atlanta for work. Even longtime residents don’t keep up with local politics.

“I really like the mayor,” said Linda Hitchcock, owner of a downtown antique store. “She’s got a lot of stuff done down here,”

But Hitchcock said was shocked to learn of the discord and turmoil reported by former staffers. And she was dismayed at hear about the ethics complaint.

“I didn’t know all that was going on down there,” she said. The city doesn’t have a downtown merchant association, she said, so everybody is on their own to stay informed. The AJC and local news weeklies also don’t cover the city as regularly as they once did.

Fairburn, population 15,500, is 20 miles south of Atlanta in Fulton County. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Until the recent turmoil, the city enjoyed stable leadership and counted many long-serving administrators in city agencies. Carr-Hurst served on the City Council 10 years before running for the top job.

City Hall insiders told the AJC Carr-Hurst began her purge of city staffers even before she became mayor. Former city administrator Tom Barber recalled one instance from 2016 when Carr-Hurst led a move to fire the city clerk.

“They just publicly humiliated the crap out of her,” Barber said.

Such incidents attracted little outside notice. But there was one incident that voters had no way of knowing. In 2013, the city hired an outside attorney to investigate multiple complaints from staffers that the councilwoman harassed them.

The investigative report, obtained by the AJC, described “a widely held view among employees … that Councilwoman Hurst often engages in rude, discourteous, disrespectful and disruptive behavior.” The report found Carr-Hurst staffers felt she used her position to intimidate them, creating a hostile work environment and legal liability for the city.

Carr-Hurst disputed that reputation in the report, offering instead that some in city government were naturally intimidated by “a strong black woman.”

In a competitive mayoral election, with two candidates challenging each other’s records, the investigative report was just the sort of public information that might have surfaced in a campaign.

Now, with 20/20 hindsight, it reads like a road map of Carr-Hurst’s first 18 months in office. Ironically, the attorney who wrote the report urged the city to create an ethics board and stronger protections to keep elected officials from going around city executive to intimidate employees.

Those reforms have led to the ethics complaint Councilwoman Hattie Portis-Jones filed against Carr-Hurst in June.

Fairburn Councilwoman Hattie Portis-Jones filed an ethics complaint against Mayor Elizabeth Carr-Hurst, alleging the mayor shouted slurs at her and threatened her during a meeting. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

‘Tactics of bullying’

In her complaint, Portis-Jones claimed Hurst-Carr called her “bitch” following a council meeting and had to be restrained by the police chief and another city council member.

“I’m gonna beat your ass,” the mayor allegedly told Portis-Jones.

Portis-Jones wrote that she took the threat seriously given “this current political environment of incivility, threats, attempted bodily harm and execution of bodily harm.” She did not offer specific examples but wrote that such threats are routine.

“Although the most egregious to date, this incident is one of many I and numerous current and former employees have endured from Elizabeth Carr-Hurst since she became mayor,” she wrote. “The tactics of bullying, fear and intimidation are commonly used by Mayor Elizabeth Carr-Hurst.”

Portis-Jones would not comment on the complaint because it is not yet resolved. In a meeting Monday, the city’s elected officials made their appointments to a citizen ethics board which would conduct the initial investigation. Carr-Hurst made her appointment to the board despite being the subject of the complaint.

When asked if she should have recused herself, Carr-Hurst said, “I’m only going by what the ordinance says.” Portis-Jones also appointed a member to the board.

The high cost of turnover

Those employees who have left Fairburn tell similar tales of brutal encounters with a mayor they claim values loyalty above city policy and pushes out anyone who contradicts her.

The mayor said she has no idea why she has a reputation as a vindictive bully.

“I handle my business. I expect employees to work for their pay. I work for my pay. I expect employees to do the same,” Carr-Hurst said.

Nonetheless, the turnover during Carr-Hurst’s mayoral term has cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars as the city struggles to find qualified candidates to fill vacant positions.

Former city administrator Donna Gayden was hired just weeks ahead of Carr-Hurst’s inauguration. She lasted just nine months, leaving with a severance package that paid her through the end of the year.

“You understand sometimes it’s a match and sometimes it’s not,” Gayden said.

Gayden’s replacement fared no better.

A portrait of Mayor Elizabeth Carr-Hurst hangs on the wall above Councilmembers James Whitmore, Alex Heath, Hattie Portis-Jones, Pat Pallend, Ulysses Smallwood, and Linda Davis at City Hall on Monday, August 12, 2019, in Fairburn. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

After paying at least $21,400 for a national search, Fairburn hired De’Carlon Seewood as the new city administrator in March of this year. Seewood came from the Ferguson, Mo., where he had been hired amid demonstrations and racial strife following the police shooting of black teenager Michael Brown. Although Seewood was praised for leading that city through a difficult period, he lasted just 50 days in Fairburn.

“It wasn’t a good fit for me. I wasn’t the right person for that city,” said Seewood, who has returned to Missouri. Records show he received a severance package that paid him his salary and benefits for six weeks — almost as long as his entire tenure with the city.

Former human resources director David Johnson would not discuss why he left Fairburn, but an open records request turned up an Equal Opportunity Employment Commission action he filed against the city in 2017 claiming “personal injuries, including … anxiety, humiliation, pain and suffering, embarrassment, mental anguish, and severe emotional distress.” The city agreed to pay Johnson $275,000 to settle the claim. It’s a cost largely unknown to Fairburn taxpayers because both sides signed a confidentiality agreement not to discuss it.

“These cities are very resilient,” Johnson told the AJC. “They will continue, regardless of poor management, because they have taxpayer dollars to fall back on. So they aren’t held to account like a privately managed company.”

But because voters in Fairburn are disengaged, Johnson said they are largely unaware of the costs.

“And when taxes are raised, they wonder why,” he said.

Mayor Elizabeth Carr-Hurst speaks during the City Council work session and council meeting on Monday, August 12, 2019, in Fairburn. The mayor says high turnover in city government is common when a new administration takes over. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

‘It’s a beautiful place now’

As top-level staffers fled the city, Carr-Hurst has used city funds to remodel City Hall and travel extensively around the nation.

In 2018, records show Hurst spent at least 70 days traveling to conferences as she crisscrossed the country from Orlando, Fla., to Washington, D.C., to Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The bill for attending the conferences cost the city at least $25,000 on flights, hotels, registration fees and per diem allowances.

Shortly after taking office in January 2018, Hurst billed the city $1,039.05 for room, board and travel to the Georgia Municipal Association’s annual Mayors Day meeting — in Atlanta. Most of the cost came from the $200-per-night hotel room at the Marriott Marquis.

Rather than driving the 20 miles to the meeting, Hurst stayed at the conference hotel for the entire four-day, three-night conference. Carr-Hurst said it wasn’t just her. Members of the council also stayed in hotel for the conference, which she said had evening gatherings and early morning meetings.

In 2019, Hurst appears to have curtailed some of her travel. Still, she has spent $4,133.45, according to a spreadsheet provided by the city.

“I sat on the city council for 10 years, but the mayor’s role was totally different,” she said, explaining her need to travel. “I’m asked a lot of come to meetings. I need to learn the city in a totally different perspective.”

When she wasn’t traveling, Carr-Hurst undertook a remodel of City Hall. Records obtained by the AJC show the mayor personally driving to Hobby Lobby, Ashley HomeStore, and Bed, Bath & Beyond searching for new furniture and decorations. She also signed off on marble countertops for the employee break room and a remodel of the council chambers, as well as other upgrades.

The tab came to at least $76,200, according to the AJC’s calculations of receipts provided by the city.

Carr-Hurst defended the spending as long overdue. Fairburn’s city hall is a former bank and little had been done to refresh its look in decades, she said.

“It needed a face lift,” she said, adding that she also had upgraded the look of the city police station, utility department and is working on freshening up municipal court.

“I became the mayor,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place now.”

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