Former Avondale Estates City Manager Clai Brown to run for mayor

Former Avondale Estates City Manager Clai Brown has announced he’s running for mayor. Courtesy of Clai Brown
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Former Avondale Estates City Manager Clai Brown has announced he’s running for mayor. Courtesy of Clai Brown

Seventeen months after resigning as city manager of Avondale Estates, Clai Brown announced he’s running for mayor. Viewed through a national lens the transition from appointed professional to elected official, especially mayor, is virtually unheard of. Locally Brown vs. incumbent Jonathan Elmore is certain to spark fireworks long after July 4th’s dying embers turn cold.

In a sense Brown’s declaration is anticlimactic. He’s regularly attended commission and Downtown Development Authority meetings since May 2018, mostly sitting in back of City Hall, taking notes and remaining silent.

“I knew when I resigned that I was going to run for mayor,” Brown said. “I couldn’t effect the change I wanted as a city manager and I decided I had to do it as mayor. We need a proven leader and right now we don’t have that.”

Brown grew up in Avondale Estates where his father was city manager and police chief for 46 years, and his paternal grandfather was a Decatur fire chief. But Brown, 55, spent his early life living up and down the eastern seaboard during a 22-year career with Home Depot. One of that company’s original associates, he retired in 2002 as a district manager and 17th in Home Depot seniority nationwide.

Though used to handling large budgets—he said that as a store manager in Boston he oversaw 450 employees and an $80 million budget—Brown had no civic experience or college degree when hired as city manager in 2007. Nevertheless he proved extremely popular, was a conservative spender, was often first on the scene of community emergencies, seemed on a first-name basis with almost each of the town’s 3600 residents, and was ultimately awarded by the commission a fabulous severance package in 2015.

But in a strange sequence of events Brown resigned in December 2017, un-resigned in January 2018, then resigned for good a month later. During that 2½-month duration he remained mostly reticent on his reasons, though he opened up some during an interview with the AJC last week.

“There were a lot of reasons, but 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.”

Leaving is one thing, but returning is not only rare, it also “raises concerns,” according to Martha Perego, Director of Member Services and Ethics for the Washington DC-based International City/County Management Association (ICMA).

“It’s not a violation of the code of ethics,” she said. “He has a right to do it and his intention could be good. I’m not questioning his intention.

“But it’s two different skill sets. The mayor is elected by the people to guide policy. A city manager is a professional who provides independent, objective opinions to elected officials. Our profession was born on the principal of political neutrality. [In other words] don’t get involved with the local politics.”

Perego says there are two recent examples similar to Brown’s current scenario.

In Fishers, Indiana, the council voted to switch from a council-manager form of government to mayor-council. Scott Fadness, who was Fishers’ manager for three years, resigned from the ICMA, ran for mayor in 2014, winning and holding the position to this day.

In Naples, Florida, a longtime manager named Bill Moss retired last January, ran for city council in April, finishing second in a three-person race.

Brown, who has never been an ICMA member, argues that he has the institutional knowledge, historical depth and far-sighted breadth, part of which he believes he helped initiate as city manager.

“I’m pro development,” he said. “I have nothing against spending money. Avondale will have to spend money, but it’s got to be done smart and you can’t take the public out of it. Most important the mayor has to be able to see 10 to 15 years down the road. These [current commissioners] can’t see the forest for the trees.”

Before delving into policy, however, Brown will likely face voter scrutiny regarding the 2015 severance that would’ve paid him $317,408.17 if he resigned or was fired without cause. That came to about 9 percent of the city’s anticipated expenditures for 2018. At the time Nancy Pridgen, an Atlanta employment attorney specializing in severance agreements, told the AJC, “Never in 18 years of doing this have I seen a contact where an executive or key employee is allowed to quit for any reason and still get a payout.”

The commission challenged the severance, eventually negotiating it down to $119,637.32, according to a document Brown provided the AJC.

“It is an unusual contract,” Brown admitted recently. “But I didn’t come up with it and a city manager can’t approve his own contract. Every process, every bylaw was followed. The city attorney (Robert Wilson) signed it and it was approved by the BOMC at a city meeting. Matter of fact [Elmore] was in the room when the contract was voted on.”

For now Elmore and Brown are the only mayoral candidates. Meantime Yelton’s already announced she isn’t running while Fisher remains undecided. Qualifying is August 19 and the election is Nov. 5.