South Fulton votes to investigate one of their own council members

The South Fulton City Council voted to investigate one of their own, Councilwoman Helen Z. Willis, on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019.



The South Fulton City Council voted to investigate one of their own, Councilwoman Helen Z. Willis, on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019.

The South Fulton City Council wants an outside attorney to investigate one of its own council members.

After a majority vote by her colleagues Tuesday, Councilwoman Helen Z. Willis is now the target of a disciplinary investigation amid accusations of letting money leave the city. The city attorney will select the outside attorney who will run the investigation.

“This is not what we discussed what was going to happen, but someone is going rogue,” Willis said.

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Councilman Khalid Kamau, who brought forth the motion, said he blamed Willis for letting $7 million leave the city. It isn’t clear if that happened. But Kamau said that’s why there needs to be an investigation.

“Whether it’s intentional, it needs to be found out,” said Mayor Pro-Tem Mark Baker.

Willis rebuffed the vague claims.

“Do not worry,” Willis said, addressing the crowd. “I have done nothing wrong.”

At the time of publication, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution could not interview council members to get clarity on the issue because the City Council meeting was still ongoing.

There have been financial concerns by city leaders that the young city of South Fulton could lose millions of dollars in bond fees if deals are done in the county instead of the city.

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The action Tuesday night comes after worries that Willis was directing companies to the Fulton County development authority, instead of to the development agency of the two-year-old city. At the city level, the board has more control over what incentives are or are not approved. There are also monetary benefits to whichever government does the bond deal.

In a Sept. 10 council meeting, Willis said she trusted the Fulton County development authority more than the city’s.

The South Fulton Development Authority had its first meeting in May and was still discussing bylaws and officer appointments at its September meeting, according to the agenda.

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“Right now, as it stands today, if I had a multi-million deal, I would go to the Fulton County development authority because they have the experience, they have the staff, they have the expertise,” Willis said during a City Council meeting in September. “And they would be the ones that I would trust my deal to, to makes my deal happen.”

In October, she did just that.

Willis attended a county development authority meeting to ask that group to approve a $27 million deal that would allow Halperns’ Steak and Seafood Company to expand on Welcome All Road, Fulton development authority director Al Nash told The AJC on Tuesday before the City Council’s actions.

Halperns’ will construct a new 47,000-square-foot building and make other improvements to existing facilities, according to development authority documents. The board approved the agreement. Nash said he had conversations with South Fulton’s economic development director, Christopher Pike, as well as Mayor Bill Edwards and Willis.

“Helen Willis came to the development authority board and asked the board to approve the deal,” he said. “The mayor and so-forth sent them our way.”

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At the September meeting, Willis voted against a proposal — which passed 5-2 — asking the county development authority not to approve deals in the city without the city being on board.

“I want to be able to use a development authority that’s for the entire county,” she said then.

The Council’s vote Tuesday came as residents voices at the polls still echo.

Willis, who ran unopposed in last week's municipal elections, and earned 853 votes, according to initial election results.

The City Council also approved an closed-door executive session to be held on Nov. 26 to discuss the disciplinary investigation. But it isn’t clear if that is fa legal use of executive session. Rules around executive sessions are laid out by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, which advocates for and helps municipalities.

According to the ACCG guidelines, meetings may be closed to the public by executive session only in the following circumstances:

• To discuss litigation with the county attorney

• To discuss confidential tax matters

• To authorize settlements to lawsuits and claims involving the county

• To discuss real estate decisions by the county

• To discuss personnel issues

• Meetings of the board of trustees or investment committee of public retirement systems

• Meetings to discuss records that are exempt

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