Hapeville Councilwoman Diane Dimmick, Mayor Alan Hallman and Counciwoman Ruth Barr, pictured in the flowered dress, toss dirt in a ceremonial groundbreaking for a luxury hotel near the Porsche headquarters on Tuesday, April 5, 2016. Barr was already facing theft charges at the time, but she would serve on the council for more than another year until her felony conviction last week in Gwinnett County. She faces five years in prison. FILE
Photo: Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Watchdog: Did small town dysfunction keep Ruth Barr in office?

Ruth Barr’s empty chair gaped like a missing tooth at Tuesday’s Hapeville City Council meeting, a visual symbol of more than a year of turmoil and division in this south Fulton County city of about 7,000 people.

“It’s not a fun time. I’ve known Ms. Barr for most of my adult life,” Mayor Alan Hallman said. “It’s a small town.”

A Gwinnett County jury last week convicted Barr, 62, of stealing more than $100,000 from her dying brother-in-law. She stands to serve five years in prison, but stealing from her own family is not the half of what she’s accused of doing.

Barr, a tax-preparer, is accused of orchestrating a massive tax fraud scheme involving thousands of metro taxpayers, many of whom are firefighters and police officers she actively sought as clients, bilking them and the state out of millions. The Georgia Department of Revenue is seeking to recover an estimated $6.4 million in taxes from Barr’s clients and officials have promised more felony charges.

Investigative reporters from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News looked into the charges last year, finding a trail of victims who trusted Barr’s tax advice.For more than a year, citizens have called for the mayor and council to find some way to remove her.

Members of the Hapeville Community Coalition, a watchdog group that has sued the city over a variety of unrelated issues, urged city officials to act and pressed Barr to resign.

“Her actions have shocked the public conscience and tarnished the city’s reputation,” Mickie Williams, the group’s president, said during a council meeting last May. Of course, Barr didn’t resign and the city didn’t act.

Instead, Hallman and the council largely ignored the allegations, in public at least.

“They knew all about Ruth Barr. They knew they could have impeached her,” said George Rogan, a vocal critic of the city and member of the Hapeville Community Coalition, which has sued the city on a number of unrelated issues.

Mayor Hallman said the city’s power to remove Barr is limited and the city’s impeachment ordinance is weak. Until last week’s convictions, the most serious charges against her were only that — charges.

“I’ve reminded people constantly that she is entitled to due process,” he said.

Just the same, Hallman said he asked his long-time friend to step down. He just did it privately.

“There were several attempts made to find a way to have her basically removed from office during this process. One council member was very adamant about that,” he said. “We all verbally told her. We didn’t make it a big public spectacle, but I told her on two occasions and once the council as a group asked her to.”

City leaders may have quietly asked her to resign, but in public they continued to work with her. In fact, Barr has been one of the most active members of the council, making appointments to city boards, voting on ordinances, approving spending.

“She was engaged right up until the end, and looking back maybe we could have done things different. But I follow the advice of our attorney and try to have a little compassion in the process,” Hallman said.

Compassion or favoritism?

Compassion is a head-scratching governance philosophy when first responders say Barr stole from them and left them owing the state in the process. But Hallman said he is following his Christian impulses to forgive and not judge.

“I’m not condoning what she did. Ruth has made — apparently made — some bad choices, but I don’t want to watch her suffer. It brings me no pleasure to watch her suffer. It’s a sad situation,” he said. “It’s sad for the victims, it’s sad for our citizens, it’s sad for our government, it’s sad for our city.”

Sad, yes. But when does compassion become favoritism?

Last August, a local merchant swore out a warrant for Barr’s arrest, claiming the councilwoman had given him a rubber check as partial payment for a shady loan. But armed with a warrant signed by a judge, city police didn’t arrest her. Instead they allowed Barr to call the merchant and work out a new payment arrangement.

That’s not how warrants work, which is why some in Hapeville throw plenty of shade in City Hall’s direction.

Hallman, who has been a councilman and mayor for almost two decades, said he hasn’t ignored Barr’s behavior.

“In fact, we sent a request to the governor to see if he would intervene when the indictment came down,” he said. But governors don’t remove elected officials in Georgia based on an indictment.

A conviction is another matter. By law, Barr now is suspended from office, and the city has asked Gov. Nathan Deal to appoint a replacement. The governor is accepting resumes and statements from interested candidates through May 17.

Mayor Alan Hallman said he and the other members of the city council privately urged Ruth Barr to step down. FILE
Photo: Ben Gray/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Pride before the fall

The council wants nothing to do with that process either.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilwoman Diane Dimmick suggested that the city host a town hall meeting where interested candidates could make brief presentations and citizens could make statements. Dimmick said the council could take that input and forward to Deal a short list of preferred replacements for Barr.

Hallman and the remaining members of the council treated that suggestion like it was radioactive.

“I’ve had other people express they don’t want our opinion,” Councilman Michael Randman said. “I’m kind of happy not to decide.”

Councilman Josh Powell doubted whether division on the council itself would even allow the remaining four elected officials to come to agreement. Powell was antsy about the city even publicizing a private forum for candidates.

“Do we want to put it on our website? Do we want to get involved? I don’t know if we want to get involved,” he said.

Laura Murphy, a former councilwoman who ran unsuccessfully against Hallman in 2015 and attends council meetings to record them on video and act as an at-large critic, said she sees Barr’s behavior as a symptom of broader problems in Hapeville.

Barr had chances to fix her problems, Murphy said. Instead, she defended her behavior and is suffering the consequences.

“What do they say? Pride goes before a fall?” Murphy said. “The same thing basically is going on in our city. They do stuff wrong, they double down, when they could just fix it.”

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As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.