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Stockbridge city council votes to oust mayor

The Stockbridge city council voted to remove the mayor from office Monday night.

The 4-1 vote to oust Mayor Lee Stuart will be appealed in court, Stuart’s attorney said.

Extra security was in place during the 9 1/2 hour special hearing which culminated in the vote to remove Stuart. The vote came after a nearly two-hour executive session. Stuart was immediately asked to leave the council chambers after the vote, which took place before the council’s regular monthly meeting. That meeting was delayed by nearly two hours.

“I’ve always said this is a continuation of the kangaroo system. This is just a good old boy system,” Stuart said after the decision. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I believe in the judicial system and I’ll be vindicated in the end.” Stuart’s attorney, Joseph Cloud, called the action “unprecedented”, noting he was given little time to prepare for the case and the city refused to pay Stuart’s legal fees but added “we’re not surprised at all by the result.”

Stuart’s hearing drew a crowd to the council chambers throughout the day. Many came in support of the mayor and wore white T-shirt emblazoned with red lettering that said “Keep Calm and Keep Mayor Lee Stuart.”

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Some observers called the proceedings a “witch hunt.”

“I don’t agree with a lot of of what he’s done but it shouldn’t be up to the council who is also accusing him (of the charges to remove him). They can’t be judge and jury,” said resident Sahar Hekmati, 13th District Chairman of the Georgia Republican Party.

Stuart supporter and resident Sheila Bradley called the proceedings “one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Allie Osuch, who served with Stuart in the military and now lives in Henry County, said Stuart is a “people’s mayor.”

Councilman Alphonso Thomas, the lone member to oppose all seven charges against Stuart, addressed the crowd after the vote on the last charge was taken.

“I did not endorse this,” Thomas said. “I’m not in favor of removing the mayor. The citizens of Stockbridge elected this mayor as well as this council. I do not think the citizens are in agreement with the investigation let alone the removal of an elected official that citizens elected. The allegations that were made I do not think warrant the removal of this mayor.”

Christopher Balch, an Atlanta attorney brought in by the council to investigate nearly two dozen allegations and complaints from citizens and city employees, insisted he was not a part of a “good old boy” network to depose Stuart. Balch represented the city in Monday’s hearing. Both sides presented nearly 20 witnesses.

“I’ve been called a lot of things but I’m not a good old boy. I’m not a Georgian. I’m not part of this system,” Balch said after the hearing. ” What I found warranted removal.”

For three years, Stuart and the city council have clashed over mayoral power and how the town of 25,000 should be run. The tension has spilled over into alleged physical confrontations and police reports have been filed over council disruptions.

Monday’s hearing delved into seven violations uncovered by Balch, an outside investigator hired to investigate more than 20 accusations from residents and city workers against Stuart’s conduct. The allegations ranged from monitoring workers' emails, to creating a hostile workplace for city workers, to compromising sensitive information about the municipal complex’s security system and sharing personal information about a city officer at a public meeting.

“I hope this is the beginning of returning Stockbridge to responsible governance,” said Kathryn Gilbert, a former council member who attended the entire hearings Monday and was one of the people who initiated ethics complaints against Stuart.

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