UPDATE: Hoschton officials told to resign over handling of black job candidate

Hoschton Mayor Theresa Kenerly and City Councilman Jim Cleveland face calls to resign. About 75 people attended a City Council meeting to protest comments the two made about a black applicant for a city job. Shantwon Astin vowed to vote the mayor and councilman out of office. Hoschton resident Mary Morrison attended to meeting to voice her concerns. "I don't want people to think that about our community," said Kelly Winebarger, who protested with her sons, Ryder and Knox.

The mayor and one councilmember from a small Georgia city near Gwinnett County faced numerous calls to resign Monday amid the fallout from comments about a black job candidate.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation, published Monday, found that Hoschton Mayor Theresa Kenerly withheld the job candidate from consideration for city administrator because he was black, according to documents and interviews. She reportedly told a colleague on the council that Hoschton — a predominantly white community of around 2,000 people — "isn't ready for this."

While being interviewed about that controversy, Hoschton City Councilman Jim Cleveland created his own by saying interracial marriage was against his “Christian beliefs” and made his “blood boil.”

The condemnation for both Kenerly and Cleveland came from across the political spectrum and throughout the metro Atlanta region on Monday — and culminated with a council colleague calling for them to step aside during a brief but tense city council meeting that drew about 75 people. Several residents threatened the two with recall elections.

“Their conduct is reprehensible,” Councilwoman Susan Powers said. “They have no business continuing to lead this city.”

Mayor Theresa Kenerly (left) and City Councilman Jim Cleveland (right) during a city council meeting at the Hoschton Historic Train Depot in Hoschton, Monday, May 6, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Many in the refurbished train depot for Monday evening’s packed council meeting agreed. There was no public comment period but there was an outburst when Kenerly quickly moved to end the 15-minute meeting.

“You do not represent our community and I didn’t move here for that,” said Shantwon Austin, a black man who moved to Hoschton with his family two years ago.

Kenerly did not address the controversy during the council meeting, which was secured by at least four armed sheriff’s deputies, and she eluded reporters afterward. The mayor previously issued a statement saying she didn’t recall making the March comments that two of her colleagues reported to the city attorney.

Shantwon Astin speaks about Hoschton Mayor Theresa Kenerly following a city council meeting at the Hoschton Historic Train Depot in Hoschton, Monday, May 6, 2019. Astin vowed to vote out the mayor and city councilman Jim Cleveland. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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While the mayor has not directly commented on calls for her resignation, Cleveland made it clear Monday he wouldn’t go down without a fight.

Told he was a disgrace by a resident following him through the parking lot after the meeting, the councilman doubled down on his controversial comments, responding, “Why, because I don’t believe in interracial marriage?”

Cleveland then said he welcomed the recall election some were threatening.

“That’s the only way you’re going to get me out,” he said.

“I’m not a racist,” Cleveland said before driving off in his pickup truck. “They don’t know how hard we work for this city. I’ve put 10 years in and haven’t drawn a dime in salary or anything else. Just my love of the city.”

Hoschton Councilman Jim Cleveland is escorted to his car by a Jackson County Sheriffs Officer following a city council meeting where members of the community urged for his resignation at the Hoschton Historic Train Depot in Hoschton, Monday, May 6, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Kelly Winebarger, 38, began waving signs for passing cars near Hoschton City Hall early Monday afternoon, hours before the scheduled council meeting.

One piece of poster board said “Hoschton will not tolerate racism.” The other asked for both Kenerly and Cleveland to resign.

“I can’t sit back and let people think that’s how everyone is here,” she said.

Further outside of City Hall, the reaction to both Kenerly’s reported comments and Cleveland’s quotes to the AJC was swift.

Hoschton resident Kelly Winebarger protests for the resignation of Hoschton Mayor Theresa Kenerly and Councilman Jim Cleveland as her sons Ryder (center) and Knox (right) sit quietly by the roadside in Hoschton, Monday, May 6, 2019. “I don’t want people the think that about our community,” Kelly said as she referenced the controversy concerning the mayor of Hoschton allegedly pulling the resume of Keith Henry from a packet of four finalists for a city position, “because he is black, and the city isn’t ready for this.”(ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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On his website, conservative commentator Erick Erickson called on Kenerly to step down.

“What is clear is that if the story is true, and it appears that the story is true, the mayor of Hoschton needs to step down immediately,” he wrote.

In a separate post, he urged Christians to counter Cleveland's comments on interracial marriage. "Christians in the United States need to speak up on this issue," he wrote.

Edward Ahmed Mitchell, executive director of the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, likewise condemned the comments.

“Racism has no place in the discourse of any city government, much less its hiring decisions. Both Mayor Kenerly and Councilman Cleveland should apologize, resign, and meet with impacted community members in order to grow as human beings,” he said in a statement.

Katie Griffin, chairwoman of the Jackson County Republican Party, condemned the remarks. She praised Powers and fellow Councilwoman Hope Weeks, both of whom serve in the county GOP, for bringing the situation to light.

“These comments do not reflect our county or our party. Thank you, Hope and Susan, for fighting against racism,” Griffin wrote.

Hoschton resident Mary Morrison holds a sign urging for the resignation of Hoschton Mayor Theresa Kenerly and Councilman Jim Cleveland during a city council meeting at the Hoschton Historic Train Depot in Hoschton, Monday, May 6, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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In a statement, Jackson County Democratic Committee Chairman Pete Fuller said he was “once again embarrassed and shamed by our local elected leaders concerning their racial attitudes.”

Fuller called Kenerly “unfit for the job.”

“Her actions do not reflect the shared values of this county and are shameful,” he said.

Former Hoschton Mayor Erma Denney, who served in the post from 2009 to 2012, called Kenerly and Cleveland “outliers” and their comments “abhorrent.”

“Their ‘belief system’ is inherently flawed and has no place in our society,” she said. “Our community, and our country, must condemn this in the strongest terms to move past this dark place that was allowed to cultivate under current leadership.”

Hoschton and most of Jackson County is represented in the General Assembly by State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, who made national news in in 2016 when, in an interview with the AJC, he defended the Ku Klux Klan as "not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order."

Our reporting

Monday’s AJC reported that a black candidate for Hoschton city manager was sidelined from consideration because of his race. The story relied on internal communications among the mayor and city council members, and two councilmembers who overheard Mayor Theresa Kenerly say the town wasn’t ready for a black city manager. Today’s story includes reaction from local officials and Monday’s city council meeting.

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