Avondale Estates city manager resigns unexpectedly

When Avondale Estates’ city commission renewed the contract of City Manager Clai Brown in March, Commissioner Randy Bebee called him “the heart and soul of the city.” Mayor Pro Tem Terry Giager added, “If we didn’t renew Clai’s contract we’d be run out of town on a rail.”

But on Wednesday Brown, who’d held the position since February 2008, resigned unexpectedly.

Neither Brown nor Mayor Jonathan Elmore returned calls and texts for comment from the AJC Wednesday. But Elmore made a brief announcement prior to Wednesday night’s commission work session, followed by a collective gasp from roughly 30 residents in the audience.

“Today we received a letter of resignation from the city manager,” Elmore said. “I just want to say to Clai, thank you for years of loyal service. We wish you well in future endeavors. As the spokesman for the city, that’s all we can say at this time, unfortunately.”

“I echo that,” said Commissioner Brian Fisher. No other commissioner spoke.

The move is stunning considering Brown’s popularity both inside and outside Avondale Estates. Decatur City Manager Peggy Merriss has on several occasions expressed her respect for Brown.

“One of the strongest points about Clai, is that he was a long termer, maybe even a lifer,” said Ed Rieker who was mayor when the commission hired Brown. Prior to that Avondale Estates went through a tumultuous stretch of six managers in the previous nine years.

“One of the problems we had before Clai,” Rieker said, “is that we were kind of a way station for managers. They came here either on their way up or on their way down. That’s something this [current] board will find out.”

No reason has been given for Brown’s departure, but there has been friction between he and the commission. Though it’s hard saying when it began, a Nov. 28 work session was likely the final straw.

Since his arrival Brown along with Finance Director Ken Turner always prepared the budget, both with reputations as conservative spenders. But the projected 2018 budget has been especially contentious given the amount of money commissioners want to spend next year, particularly in financing of Downtown Development Authority.

Since July the city had been through at least five revisions of the budget. A final and balanced revision was prepared by Fisher, who’s been on the commission less than two years. A critical change is that Fisher projects an additional $82,000 in revenue. Among five commissioners only outgoing member Terry Giager opposed this draft, calling it “blue sky budgeting,” while adding that the projected raised revenues are “speculative at best.”

Under the council-manager form of government, commonly called the strong manager, weak mayor system, there is nothing technically unethical about a commissioner revising a budget.

“The city manager is responsible for providing an annual budget and fiscal plan, but the council can make changes, can reshape and re-adopt it,” said Marc Ott, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based International City/County Management Association. “Once council approves it, you as city manager salute them and carry it out with enthusiasm. If you can’t do that then maybe it’s time to move on.”

But several others interviewed by the AJC over the past week, with no connections to Avondale Estates government, described the Fisher presentation as “unusual.” One declared it “highly disrespectful” to Brown and Turner.

Also, in recent weeks media interview requests for any city employee, including Brown, needed approval from Elmore. This hasn’t been the previous protocol, when staffers could get contacted directly or contacted through Brown. Nevertheless, since first elected mayor in March 2015, Elmore declared himself, as he did once again Wednesday, the city’s official spokesperson.

Sister city Decatur by comparison has a formal communications plan, but generally Mayor Patti Garrett is spokesperson for the commission and Merriss spokes person for operations.

No plan was revealed for Brown’s replacement, or an interim city manager. Brown will remain until Feb. 16, according to a Facebook post under the name Tudor Square. His $162,496 annual contract expires in March.

Brown grew up in the city, graduating from the old Avondale High in 1982. At age 15 he was hired as a lot man and car loader for a new company called The Home Depot. He helped open the first store and retired 22 years later as a district manager. His father, Dewey Brown, who died in Nov. 2007, and whose photograph hangs in city hall to this day, was Avondale’s city manager and chief of police for 46 years.

“It’s a tremendous loss for Avondale,” Rieker said. “I don’t know a better city manager in the state. He loves the city, its residents and history. Before we hired him, he told me, ‘My dream was always to be city manager here.’ “