Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary leaned on a podium as he told a shocked audience he has cancer and needed some time away.
He said the stress of the job — increased by bickering with City Council members that again left Lary on the losing end of a 4-2 vote just a few minutes before — was becoming more than he should handle. He would finally be listening to the advice of doctors and family to step back and prioritize his health, the mayor said.
“You are in good hands for a couple of months with Mayor Pro Tem George Turner,” Lary said during the Sept. 17 meeting. “He has the strength and spirit for it. I’ll still do the duties that you all elected me to do, but I can’t make these council meetings right now.”
Stonecrest Councilman Rob Turner was among those stunned, but willing to give Lary the time off he needed.
“I thought that meant he was going on leave of absence totally from that position,” Turner recalled from that day.
The mayor left immediately after his speech, so he wasn’t around to answer any questions. But the next afternoon, the city’s attorney sent council members an email that put a different spin on things.
Attorney Tom Kurrie wrote that he had been speaking with Lary about how cancer treatments would affect his abilities to attend meetings. But that was the only duty the mayor planned to relinquish.
“In my opinion, the mayor suffers no disability which precludes him from attending to the office of the mayor,” Kurrie wrote. “The mayor’s wish is that he be excused from attendance at council meetings during his cancer treatment period.”
The city council meets twice a month. But the Stonecrest charter outlines a host of other duties for the mayor, including setting the agenda for meetings, signing checks, supervising the city manager, making appointments for vacant positions and serving as the city’s ceremonial head at other meetings and events.
Turner said he was initially confused when he learned that Lary planned to still perform those roles even as he insisted that meetings were too stressful and harmful to his health.
“If you’re going to step away, I’m thinking you need to step away completely,” he said.
Councilwoman Diane Adoma, perhaps the mayor’s biggest adversary on the council, has also raised concerns. She asked Lary to put in writing his request for a leave of absence so that members can be clear when he will or won’t be showing up to work. The mayor refused.
But the city clerk did send an email asking whether the five council members are willing to excuse any absences Lary will accumulate in the coming weeks. If he misses more than one-third of meetings over a three-month period without being excused, then the mayor will be forced to forfeit his position.
Turner said he would be willing to give Lary the okay to miss meetings, although he remains concerned about the health risks of him remaining so active. To Turner’s knowledge, Lary has still been going at full speed since the Sept. 17 announcement.
The mayor attended an all-day training and tour of the city of Smyrna last week, Adoma said. She wants him to clarify what he meant when he said he was taking time off.
“What are we excusing?” she said. “We have no formal or official medical documents. Is he cherry picking what he is going to do?”
The mayor did not return calls, emails and text messages from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the Sept. 17 announcement.
City spokesman Adrion Bell said Lary plans to attend the council’s next meeting on Oct. 3 to clear up misinformation that had been swirling. But he isn’t sure if Lary is attending the whole meeting or just long enough to say his piece.
Bell said he does not have the answers to questions about when Lary’s leave will begin, how long it will last or what it will entail.
“That is some of the information that he will clarify,” Bell said.
Bill Floyd is the former mayor of Decatur, former president of the Georgia Municipal Association and a past president of the Metro Atlanta Mayors’ Association. He said he has never worked with someone who stepped down for health reasons but remembers examples of people taking extended time off or resigning all together for various reasons.
In his experience, those have been all-or-nothing decisions.
“Those transitions worked well, but it was primarily because there was a clean break,” Floyd said.
He said has not had enough dealings with Stonecrest, a city approved by voters in 2016, to have an opinion on what would be best for Lary. Floyd said the interim city manager Michael Harris has a good reputation and can run day-to-day operations while Lary figures out which duties he can fulfill despite his health issues.
“I do know it’s hard to do something halfway,” Floyd said. “But just because he doesn’t go to a meeting doesn’t mean he is doing it halfway.”
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