With errant marijuana veto tweet, Atlanta mayor’s race takes odd turn

Mayor Kasim Reed (DAVID BARNES / AJC File Photo)

Mayor Kasim Reed (DAVID BARNES / AJC File Photo)

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed spent Wednesday morning taking pot shots at City Council President Ceasar Mitchell and the media after false reports he had vetoed legislation reducing penalties for marijuana possession.

“We received an email overnight that the Mayor VETOED our marijuana legislation for less than one ounce,” said an early-morning tweet from the official account of the Atlanta City Council.

There was just one problem. It wasn’t true.

The tweet wasn’t corrected for close to an hour, and it took more than four hours before it was deleted.

In the interim, Reed insisted that the error — which was reported by media organizations and retweeted more than 50 times — was in fact organized by Mitchell, a candidate to succeed him as mayor.

"This was intentional. This was a political stunt," Reed said on V-103, where he appeared on Ryan Cameron's morning show to tout the legislation he had signed Tuesday night and to endorse Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms in the crowded mayor's race.

Mitchell denied the accusation, instead taking aim at Reed for politicizing the tweet. In a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mitchell said it was Reed who used the tweet as a “desperate political ploy,” a distraction from “the scandal and federal investigation of City Hall.”

On Tuesday, two contractors who pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to pay bribes to win city contracts were sentenced in federal court.

“Neither I nor my office had anything to do with the inadvertent tweet,” Mitchell said. “Mayor Reed needs to start cleaning up his own mess rather than spread falsehoods. His behavior continues to demean the office he holds.”

On the radio, Reed also called out Dexter Chambers, the director of communications for city council, saying he was “trying to score political points.”

How does one score political points by sending a message about popular legislation that is then proven to be false? Reed didn’t elaborate.

Michael Leo Owens, an Emory political science professor who is watching the mayor’s race, said the mayor “is known to retaliate” against anything that rubs him the wrong way.

“The mayor is very vocal and engaged in the race, as if he were a candidate,” said Owens, whom Reed has blocked on Twitter. “Politicizing the moment makes sense.”

Last week city council voted 15-0 to eliminate the possibility of jail time for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and reduce fines to $75.

Reed endorsed the legislation on Twitter at the time and signed it Tuesday night.

The City Council Twitter handle that falsely reported the veto typically publicizes community events, recently passed legislation, upcoming council hearings and memes about the weather to its 13,000 followers. Chambers said the errant tweet came about because of an over-eager employee.

The employee started at the city in July after nearly eight years in media relations, according to her LinkedIn profile. The employee did not respond to a message seeking comment sent via Facebook.

Chambers said he usually reads every tweet before it is sent, but the employee, on Wednesday morning, saw a Tuesday night email about legislation the mayor had vetoed.

She didn’t open the attachment on the message, which made it clear the veto had been of a council-approved land sale to the city of Hapeville, Chambers said. Instead, she proved the old adage, assuming the veto as related to the marijuana legislation.

“It just looks bad,” Owens said. “Literally, nobody was paying attention.”

In no way was the error politically motivated, Chambers said. In fact, he sent out an official apology saying “appropriate personnel actions” had been taken, though he didn’t elaborate about what they were.

“If you make a mistake, even an innocent mistake, it’s hard to pull it back,” Chambers said. “She is mortified.”

Chambers said he will be reviewing council’s social media policies to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again.

Harvey Newman, a professor emeritus at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State, said he isn’t sure people will be distracted from actual policy matters by the tiff.

But he said Reed’s response is just another instance of the mayor “trying to inject himself in the race in every way possible.”

“The less that’s said about this issue, the better,” Newman said.