‘I don’t trust you’: Feud among top officials grips Roswell government

Roswell City Hall has been gripped by a feud between administrator Gary Palmer and a council member, Mike Palermo. CREDIT: AJC file photo

Roswell City Hall has been gripped by a feud between administrator Gary Palmer and a council member, Mike Palermo. CREDIT: AJC file photo

Across metro Atlanta, many cities are run day-to-day by professional administrators who hold perhaps the most perilous job in all of government: They must cater to the whims of part-time elected officials who hold the power to hire and fire them at will.

These tenuous relationships make the conflict that has gripped Roswell's City Hall over the past year all the more remarkable. City administrator Gary Palmer is tangled in an escalating feud with councilman Mike Palermo that has has grown nasty, personal, and, at times, played out in public view. The latest salvo involved Palmer, a retired Marine, threatening to bar Palermo from city offices and launch an investigation if he continued to berate and demean employees, as he has been accused of doing.

Palmer, in a March 15 email, warned Palermo not to force his hand.

“If I get additional credible reports of that behavior occurring during my tenure as city administrator I will restrict your key-card access to the common areas of City Hall and your office and launch a full investigation into the allegations,” Palmer wrote.

Palermo, for his part, denies the “baseless allegations” and said he’s been taken aback by Palmer’s assault on his character.

“I have heard this is not the first time you have made false allegations to benefit your personal goals and I will not tolerate it,” he wrote in response.

Earlier last month, Palmer told Palermo he did not want him meeting with city staff without Palmer present.

“The problem Councilmember Palermo is I don’t trust you,” Palmer wrote in an email. “When I find out that you are using public resources and having city employees play a particular role for your individual political gain, then I have great concerns and have a duty to act.”

Since last year, Palermo has taken to Facebook to attack Palmer and question his performance. In a post last month, he questioned whether Palmer worked a full 40-hour work-week, saying he didn’t always see him in the office on Fridays. He wrote that “taxpayers expect their highly-paid city administrator to work a full 5 days in the office.”

“There are many corporate jobs that can be worked from the car, or in any state,” Palermo wrote. “Running a city isn’t one of those jobs.”

Palermo wrote a post last fall about his concerns that Palmer was briefing council members about a transportation project in small groups instead of in a public meeting, and said that he opposed the decision to stop providing detailed written minutes of council meetings.

Palmer did not respond to several requests for comment about the feud, but said in a statement to Channel 2 Action News that Palermo was “publicly vilifying my character.”

“For months I have been publicly defamed, disparaged, damaged professionally and personally, and subjected to public hostility due to the councilman’s posts on his City of Roswell Councilmember social media platforms,” he wrote.

In November, according to emails between the two, Palmer admonished Palermo for directing city personnel himself, when he should have gone to the city administrator’s office.

And a year ago, according to a memo Palmer wrote to himself, he had to tell Palermo not to use city staff to register his children for Roswell’s recreation programs. Palermo said not having to do so himself would free up his time to work on city business, according to the memo that was obtained via an open records request.

Palermo said after Palmer had talked to him, he directed his wife to stop asking for help with recreation program registration. He called the raft of allegations against him false.

“I’m shocked at the fact that he would make up such malicious allegations,” Palermo said. “I want to hear the details. I was blown away.”

Other officials in the historic north Fulton County city of 95,000 seem unsure how to resolve a conflict that appears untenable.

Mayor Lori Henry said she she trusts Palmer, but questioned whether he had the authority to tell Palermo what to do. Palmer has held the post of the city's top manager since October 2017 and he is responsible for managing the city's 600 full-time and 450 part-time employees. Ultimately, he reports to the mayor and council, she said.

“Gary Palmer is in a very delicate position, because he answers to seven elected officials,” she said. “He’s right in between all of this. It’s a difficult position, extremely difficult.”

Henry called the whole episode a “dust-up” and said she was concerned for morale in city government after Palermo posted criticisms of an employee online.

"Somehow, this has spiraled out of control," she said.

The testosterone-fueled melodrama is the latest in a series of issues that have shaken local government in a historic city that once saw Union forces burn its mills to the ground. Its police chief retired at the end of the year after a series of questionable actions by his officers came to the public's attention, including two cops who were fired for using a coin-flip app to determine whether someone should be arrested. The council also faced backlash last summer after leaders decided to turn a beloved local park into a tennis center, despite not going to residents about the proposal. Council later backtracked.

“It seems like every week, there’s another issue like this,” council member Sean Groer said. “When these type of issues are going on at city hall, they do absolutely get in the way of us governing and moving the city forward.”

Groer said in his experience, Palmer had always acted professionally.

“Mr. Palmer is not going to just make things up,” Groer said. “He’s not going to fabricate things.”

But others side with Palermo. Marcelo Zapata, an ally on the council, said he's not exactly sure where the bad blood came from, but thinks it's rooted in Palmer's push last year to stop offering transcriptions of city council meetings. Zapata said Palermo is passionate about open government and transparency.

“I don’t see anything out of line,” Zapata said. “He’s very professional, very respectful. He’s doing his duty for taxpayers.”