Hearing to remove South Fulton mayor, council member ends without vote

Mayor Bill Edwards reacts during a hearing to remove Edwards and councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis (R) from office at the South Fulton City Hall, December 30, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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Mayor Bill Edwards reacts during a hearing to remove Edwards and councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis (R) from office at the South Fulton City Hall, December 30, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

A Monday hearing that could lead to the removal of a mayor and council member in the city of South Fulton was often raucous and unwieldy, but it ended with the fate of the two elected officials still unclear.

The hearing, to remove Mayor Bill Edwards and Councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis, lasted more than nine hours as council members heard testimony from six people, including the city attorney, the city’s economic development director and a representative of Halperns’ Steak and Seafood Co. — the company at the heart of a development deal that led to the hearing.

Willis and Edwards have been accused of directing Halperns to the Development Authority of Fulton County for a $27 million bond deal it received in October, after council members decided that the new South Fulton Development Authority should be the only agency offering incentives to companies within the city.

Those council members claim the move cost the city millions of dollars in lost revenue. Halperns is already located in South Fulton and plans to expand.

Council members adjourned at 6:30 p.m. without taking a vote, and they could not say whether they would reconvene the hearing. The adjournment happened with no discussion after one council member left and Edwards cast the deciding vote.

Attorney Antavius Weems, who represents Willis, said the process was over.

Edwards called the adjournment a victory and said the hearing was “unnecessary.”

“It’s too costly to this community,” he said.

The investigation and hearing have cost city taxpayers more than $50,000.

But councilman Khalid Kamau said the vote could still occur.

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A crowd packs a room at the South Fulton City Hall during a hearing to remove Mayor Bill Edwards and councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis, December 30, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

A crowd packs a room at the South Fulton City Hall during a hearing to remove Mayor Bill Edwards and councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis, December 30, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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A crowd packs a room at the South Fulton City Hall during a hearing to remove Mayor Bill Edwards and councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis, December 30, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Council members have been pushing for the hearing since mid November. It was originally scheduled for Dec. 10, but the case was dismissed by a judge after she ruled that the charges against Willis weren’t properly signed. Edwards was added to the investigation after that.

Monday, more than 100 residents, including at least three state representatives, crammed into a break room at South Fulton’s city hall to watch the proceedings. Some arrived 90 minutes before it started, and the number of people in the breakroom — festooned with poinsettia, hanging snowflake cutouts and a Christmas tree — soon became standing-room only. More watched on YouTube in an overflow room.

The ongoing dispute has frustrated residents across South Fulton, a two-year-old city of nearly 100,000 people who are intensely interested in their city’s reputation and its success.

“We’ve got to come together,” Edwards said after hours of testimony. “We want South Fulton to look good.”

But a suggestion, for the second time, that council members consider mediation was quickly rejected and the testimony often felt more like an airing of grievances than a finding of facts.

Council members criticized the hiring of the city attorney, the creation of the development board, the economic development director’s communication habits and the mayor’s veto power.

The tone was contentious throughout.

“It’s like we’re living in a burning house,” Mayor Pro Tem Mark Baker said.

‘Ensure the money stays here’

Council members accused Willis of costing the city $7 million by virtue of the Halperns deal going to the county development authority instead of to the city.

Emilia Walker, the South Fulton city attorney, said the figure could be that high if South Fulton were to collect all the tax dollars that would otherwise be owed to Fulton County and the Fulton County schools.

Fulton County does not structure its deals that way and instead offered the company a 10-year property tax abatement.

There is no evidence that Halperns would have gotten a deal that would have sent that much money to the city. But Walker said she thought the option was legal, and the best one for the city to pursue. She reached out to Halperns leadership the day before the Fulton County authority voted to approve the abatement.

“Sometimes we want to ensure the money stays here,” she said. “The only way to guarantee that we can use that money is to come before our development authority.”

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City Council Naeema Gilyard reacts during a hearing to remove Mayor Bill Edwards and councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis at the South Fulton City Hall, December 30, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

City Council Naeema Gilyard reacts during a hearing to remove Mayor Bill Edwards and councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis at the South Fulton City Hall, December 30, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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City Council Naeema Gilyard reacts during a hearing to remove Mayor Bill Edwards and councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis at the South Fulton City Hall, December 30, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Walker also said she was concerned that Christopher Pike, the economic development director, didn’t bring the potential deal to others in the city when he first learned about it. Pike testified that the company was on a short time-frame for completing the deal, and he told a consultant he could not guarantee that the new city development authority would be able to complete it before the end of December.

The South Fulton Development Authority still has not closed any deals.

“This was about helping a company that wanted to stay in your community,” Development Authority of Fulton County CEO Al Nash said.

In October, Willis texted Walker about her efforts to contact Halperns, questioning why she was trying to intervene. Willis then went to the Development Authority of Fulton County meeting to try to keep the project on track after Pike told her Halperns leadership was concerned about Walker’s outreach.

Willis said she thought the efforts to remove her from office were personal, and that Walker was involved.

“I suspect you are colluding with four council members to get me kicked out of my seat,” Willis said.

Recent votes in the investigation have largely been 4-3. Willis was just elected to a second term.

The testimony about phone calls, tax deals and timelines for contact didn’t sooth the tensions on the council. Toward the end of the hearing, Baker said the council was doing a “horrible job” of finding the truth.

“We’re here because of lost tax dollars and the possibility that two of our own betrayed the city,” he said.