Clai Brown, left and Mayor Jonathan Elmore in friendlier times when Brown was Avondale Estates’ city manager. After resigning in Feb. 2018, Brown is now returning to run for mayor against Elmore. Bill Banks file photo for the AJC

Avondale Estates elections feature Brown-Elmore mayoral showdown

Qualifying for Avondale Estates’ Nov. 5 elections closed August 23 setting the stage for a one-on-one mayoral showdown between former friends and colleagues Clai Brown and incumbent Jonathan Elmore.

The race is intriguing on multiple levels. Brown was city manager for 10 years before resigning Feb. 2018. He remained mostly silent regarding his reasons until an interview with the AJC last month when he said, “ … the major [issue] is that the commission was interfering with staff business. This is where I draw a line in the sand—the [Board of Mayor and Commissioners] cannot get involved in day-to- day business. Three members on the board (Elmore and Commissioners Brian Fisher and Adela Yelton), that’s the reason I left.”

Elmore and Fisher have both emphatically denied any interference.

Additionally four have qualified for commission: Fisher, Marguerite Belline, Candace Jones and Dee Merriam, with the top two vote getters winning the seats. Incumbent Yelton has declined to run again.

Fisher was first elected in Nov. 2015, while Jones and Merriam are longtime city activists. Belline, an attorney with a downtown Avondale office, has lived in the city since 2014.

Elmore, initially elected in March 2015, is likely the most aggressive pro-growth mayor in city history. With the creation in June of an Urban Redevelopment Agency, Avondale for the first time ever is preparing to borrow large sums of money to pay for downtown development projects.

Brown, immensely popular during his decade as manager, was mostly known as a conservative spender. He was born and raised in the city and his father was city manager/police chief for 46 years. Like his father, Brown’s known for his impeccable one-on-one charm and vast institutional knowledge.

But as a July 9 AJC article pointed out, it’s very unusual for a former city manager to run for mayor in the city he served, a practice definitely frowned on by the Washington DC-based International City/County Management Association.

He’s also certain to face questions regarding a strange severance package, approved by the commission (though no current members) in 2015, and then re-approved by a board that included two current commissioners plus Elmore in Feb. 2016 and Feb. 2017. That package would’ve paid him $317,408.17, or about 9 percent of the city’s projected 2018 budget, even if he resigned or was fired with cause. The large payout is very unusual, particularly for a city of Avondale’s size (population 3600), but the generous conditions for that payout are virtually unheard of.

The commission challenged the severance, eventually negotiating it down to $119,637.32, according to a document Brown provided the AJC. Elmore has said he and his fellow commissioners never saw the severance package until Dec. 2017.

Meantime Elmore’s critics charge him with ignoring his constituency

Most notably in August 2018, the commission approved a 270-apartment project by a 4-1 vote amidst simmering community outrage at the time. That project was formally opposed by both the city’s Planning & Zoning Board and Architectural Review Board. It was also rejected by a petition signed by 20 percent of the city’s population, saying that the development was much larger than what the city’s zoning mandates.

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