Hoschton resident Russ Zyga puts a sign on his car in front of City Hall Wednesday. The Jackson County Democratic and Republican parties were holding a joint event nearby to show residents how to file ethics complaints against two city officials whose racially charged remarks drew criticism nationwide. CURTIS COMPTON/ccompton@ajc.com

Pressure grows to force out Hoschton officials

Republican and Democratic leaders join forces to show residents how to file complaints against city leaders who made racially charged remarks.

A steady stream of Hoschton residents filed into a rented hall next to City Hall Wednesday to fill out paperwork they hope will force Mayor Theresa Kenerly and Councilman Jim Cleveland out of office.

“Either they resign or the recall campaign forces them to step down,” said resident Kelly Winebarger, a three-year resident of the city in Jackson County 50 miles northeast of Atlanta. “They both need to go.”

The chairs of the Jackson County Republican Party and the Jackson County Democratic Party joined forces in assisting residents in filling out complaints. The forms claim the two officials’ racially charged remarks subjected the town to public ridicule and violated city ordinances for behavior in office as well as state non-discrimination laws.

The Jackson County Republican Chair Katie Griffin and Democratic Chair Pete Fuller hold a joint event Wednesday to walk citizens through the process of filing ethics complaints against Hoschton Mayor Theresa Kenerly and Councilman Jim Cleveland. Organizers say the goal is to trigger an ethics process to force the two politicians from office. Kenerly came under fire for withholding a candidate from consideration for city administrator because he is black. Cleveland, a Kenerly supporter, voiced racially charged opinions about interracial marriage, which he has unsuccessfully tried to walk back. Keith Henry, the black job candidate, said he received a call recently from the mayor who apologized for the comments while claiming she had the best interests of the city at heart. Henry has hired an Atlanta attorney to represent him in possible actions against the city. CURTIS COMPTON/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The bipartisan effort is the latest attempt to ratchet up pressure on Kenerly and Cleveland following an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation into comments the mayor reportedly made during a search for a new city administrator. According to city documents and accounts by two members of the City Council, Kenerly said she withheld the application for one finalist “because he is black, and the city isn’t ready for this.”

Then, in an interview with the AJC, Cleveland defended the mayor’s comments and made matters worse by volunteering his opinion that interracial marriages were against his Christian upbringing. “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,” the councilman said.

In a subsequent interview, Cleveland walked those comments back a bit, saying they represented how he used to think and that he was much more tolerant now. However, he said he does believe interracial relationships “can create problems.”

The words were hurtful to residents Anthony and Erica Osula, a biracial couple with two children, ages 10 months and 5, who were among those filing ethics complaints.

Residents Erica and Anthony Osula fill out complaints about the Hoschton mayor and a councilman as Jackson County Republican Chair Katie Griffin looks on. The county’s Democratic and Republican parties joined forces to help residents who want to force the mayor and a council member from office. CURTIS COMPTON/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“It touched me,” Anthony Osula said as his wife fought back tears. Kenerly and Cleveland’s comments “don’t have a place in our society,” he said.

Keith Henry, the finalist who was the subject of Kenerly’s alleged remarks, has hired an Atlanta attorney and is working on filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a required first step if he intends to sue the city.

Henry, who works as the assistant city manager in suburban Houston, Texas, said he received an unexpected call from the mayor on May 11, after the controversy drew national attention.

“I immediately informed her that I could not speak to her without my counsel present,” he said.

Henry said Kenerly apologized to him but said she was acting in the “best interests” of the city. “It was brief. She kept it simple,” he said. “I’m sure it wasn’t advisable that she gave me a call.”

Kenerly did not return a phone call from the AJC seeking comment.

Previously, she has denied making prejudiced comments but has refused to answer questions about the incident or why, a week later, she apologized to the council in a private meeting.

Councilwoman Hope Weeks said the mayor’s denials are disturbing because Kenerly repeated the comments about Henry to her personally.

The controversy comes at a critical time for Hoschton, which is in the midst of a massive residential building boom. According to new estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, Hoschton is the third fastest-growing city in Georgia, with a 2018 population of 1,916, a 15 percent increase over the previous year.

So far, Kenerly and Cleveland have resisted all calls to step down, despite criticism from a wide number of organizations including the NAACP, the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, and the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus.

On Wednesday, the Washington, D.C.,-based International City/County Management Association added its voice to the mix. ICMA is a century-old professional association for non-elected government workers which sets best practices for how government officials should behave.

“Our job is to serve all people, notwithstanding racial background,” Executive Director Marc Ott said. “That should have been the entire basis of their decision in Hoschton rather than selecting a city manager or city administrator in this way.”

Ott, who earlier in his career was the first African-American city manager of Austin, Texas, said the Hoschton story reminded him of an experience he had as he was building his career and was told that an elected official refused to hire him because he is black.

“I can understand how he is feeling,” Ott said of Henry. “Things change, but they haven’t changed enough. What happened in Hoschton is an example.”

Ott said his organization stands ready to help Hoschton move ahead with its understanding of how diverse leadership can improve government for its citizens.

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