City will retry dismissal case against South Fulton councilwoman

City Council Member Helen Zenobia Willis (C) listens to testimony during a hearing at the South Fulton Arts Center on Tuesday, December 10, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

City Council Member Helen Zenobia Willis (C) listens to testimony during a hearing at the South Fulton Arts Center on Tuesday, December 10, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

The city of South Fulton’s attempt to remove councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis from office failed, after a retired superior court judge said officials did not follow the proper procedures outlined in the city charter.

But Willis’ city council colleagues voted immediately afterward to pursue a new, identical case against her later this month.

The judge dismissed the case Tuesday before any evidence was presented because, she said, the mayor, city clerk and city attorney all failed to sign charging documents that accused Willis of directing money outside the city and creating a hostile work environment.

That meant there was no case to consider, according to retired Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thelma Wyatt Moore.

“My ruling is nothing is properly before us if it’s not properly signed,” said Moore, who added that the city does not have a right to appeal the ruling. “I consider [the case] done.”

It doesn’t appear the city agrees.

Immediately after the judge’s ruling, Councilman Khalid Kamau suggested that the council begin a new process that would likely result in identical charges being levied against Willis. He added that the nearly 150 residents who attended the hearing at the South Fulton Arts Center deserved a presentation of the evidence against Willis.

“I don’t want us to have any excuse not to have a hearing,” Kamau said. “I want them to have the truth they came to hear.”

Council members have accused Willis of directing money outside of the city by supporting a tax abatement on a $27 million expansion of Halperns’ Steak and Seafood Co., which sought the tax break from the Development Authority of Fulton County rather than the city’s development authority.

City officials say that cost the city about $7 million, although they have not been able to provide documentation of that revenue loss. Development authorities typically earn a small percentage of bond revenue on the tax incentives they approve.

Willis has denied directing the company — which is located in her district — to the county’s development authority, and said she simply supported the incentives for its expansion.

Willis declined comment to a reporter Tuesday, but has maintained that she did nothing wrong.

“It’s over!” members of the crowd shouted, even as council members voted, 4-3, to hold a new hearing Dec. 30. They also voted to use a new judge from outside Fulton County.

Antavius Weems, an attorney representing Willis, said the city needed “to stop this foolish mess.”

“It was over before it started,” he said. “At the end of the day, this city needs to just move on.”

South Fulton, a city of nearly 100,000 people that formed in May 2017, is made up of the last unincorporated parts of Fulton County. Since it was formed, the city has had a number of notable squabbles — including Willis accusing councilwoman Rosie Jackson of brandishing a Taser against her during a council meeting.

No evidence was found to back up Willis’ claim.

Willis was elected to a second term in November, after she ran unopposed. A week after the election, council members voted to investigate her, then decided later that month to hold a hearing that could remove her from office.

‘A very low bar’

John Mrosek, an outside attorney representing the city said the judge’s ruling was in error, and that the council has the ability to hold a new hearing as long as they give Willis 10 days’ notice.

“City council can do this once every 11 days, if they want,” he said.

Mrosek said the city has “plenty of evidence” to meet the standard of proof. The requirement to remove someone from office is incompetence, misfeasance or malfeasance — one Mrosek said he can easily clear.

“It’s a very low bar,” he said.

Willis has not been charged with a crime.

Rhonda Simpson, who lives in Willis’ district, called the process “foolishness.” She said residents voted to re-elect Willis, and they should initiate a recall if there are concerns.

Damita Chatman, a South Fulton resident who lives outside Willis’ district, said it was clear that other council members “had a vendetta” against the councilwoman.

“If they respected taxpayer dollars, they wouldn’t do this,” she said.

Other residents thought she should have already been removed. Joyce Jones said she didn’t understand how so many things slipped through the cracks before the hearing.

“Someone failed to do their job,” she said.

Still others said they just wanted to hear the case. Ivory M. Denson said the charges were serious enough that she was disappointed the process was aborted because of a technicality.

Mrosek, the attorney representing the city, said the process was messy but necessary.

“This is open government,” he said. “Open government is sometimes unruly and unsightly, but it’s a good thing. I’d be more concerned if this was all being done in private.”