Roswell council candidate under fire for language used in newsletter

One candidate for Roswell city council has come under fire for comments he made in a newsletter four years ago. AJC FILE PHOTO
One candidate for Roswell city council has come under fire for comments he made in a newsletter four years ago. AJC FILE PHOTO

Roswell resident Geoff Smith says he was frustrated by low voter turnout four years ago when he sent a newsletter lambasting voters for choosing a millennial and someone who “barely speaks English” to represent them on city council.

When Smith was a private citizen, the newsletter from his business address was forwarded around the city with little impact. Now that Smith is running for city council, the newsletter has resurfaced and some are questioning whether he’s fit to be elected himself.

In the newsletter, Smith targeted Michael Palermo — his opponent in the Nov. 5 election — and Marcelo Zapata.

“One guy is 30 years old and another guy has only lived in Roswell for 8 months and barely speaks English,” Smith wrote in November 2015. “I’m serious. People who have spoken with him say he cannot carry on a conversation in English. I think he moved here from Argentina.”

Zapata, who did move to Roswell from Argentina, said he had been a Roswell resident for 15 years before seeking office. He’s also lived in Chile, Brazil and Italy, and is fluent in four languages.

Zapata said he found it “disrespectful” that Smith had questioned his language skills. In turn, he questioned Smith’s character and his judgment.

"For me, this kind of tone and comments fosters division," Zapata said. "I speak with an accent — I don't think with an accent."

One resident, Ginny Lim, was forwarded the email in 2015 and replied to Smith, the councilmen and others saying she was “shocked” and “horrified” by the newsletter, which she wrote was ugly, “full of inaccuracies and comes incredibly close to being flat-out racist.”

In response, Smith replied and thanked Lim for the feedback. To Zapata, he wrote, “if I offended you, lo siento.”

Four years later, Lim said her blood pressure “went through the roof” when she reread the exchange. She called the remarks “incredibly racist” and said Smith’s apology was belittling and condescending, to boot.

“It’s really telling of who you are as a person,” Lim said.

Smith said he regretted the example he used in the newsletter, but that the point of his missive was to encourage people to get out and vote. He refused to answer specific questions about his language in the newsletter, but said he would represent all Roswell residents, and thought he could make a difference for the city.

He also said he had been volunteering in the city for years, including at Mimosa Elementary School, where he helped lead the Collective Impact Program, which seeks to raise literacy rates among third graders, many of whom are Hispanic. The school district confirmed his involvement.

Kurt Hilbert, who lives in Roswell, said the language in the newsletter doesn't dampen his support for Smith. Palermo, Smith's opponent, has been accused of berating and demeaning Roswell employees, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this year that city administrator Gary Palmer had threatened to bar Palermo from city offices and launch an investigation if the behavior continued. Palermo denied the allegations as "baseless."

“I’m more interested in the character, the integrity, of the council members that are sitting,” Hilbert said. “That is much more concerning to me than something that was said in a newsletter.”

Hilbert said he didn’t think the language was relevant to whether Smith would be successful in office.

“To me, that’s a non-issue,” he said. “He will be an excellent council member, if he is elected.”

For his part, Palermo said he thought the newsletter was “very inappropriate” and was a mischaracterization of Zapata’s background.

In the heated council race, Palermo has also come under fire. He claimed a homestead exemption on two houses he owns in the city, when it is only legal to claim one.

Palermo said he thought one exemption would be canceled when he moved into the other home. When a reporter informed him that two exemptions were active, he said, he went to the county to cancel one of them. A spokesperson for Fulton County said Palermo would be billed for back taxes, but she did not know how much he would owe or when it would be due. Palermo pledged to pay “whatever I owe.”

“I had no idea,” he said.

In addition to the newsletter issue, Smith was sentenced to four years probation and 120 hours of community service and fined $1,000 after he pleaded guilty to obstruction of a law enforcement officer for using inappropriate language after he was pulled over for speeding in Gwinnett County in 2002. Smith's record was cleared in 2008 under the first offender act. He said the arrest stemmed from a misunderstanding because he had an expired car tag.

Roswell's politics, Smith said, "are nothing short of dramatic."

"I really hope someday we can calm this stuff down," he said. "If we can't be happy here, we can't be happy anywhere."