Roswell election over development issues showcases ‘mud-slinging’

These were some of the 57 campaign signs bordering the East Roswell Library, on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. The library is one of the city’s two early voting locations. Election day is Nov. 5, 2019. (Ben Brasch/AJC)

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These were some of the 57 campaign signs bordering the East Roswell Library, on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. The library is one of the city’s two early voting locations. Election day is Nov. 5, 2019. (Ben Brasch/AJC)

Roswell's residents have experienced political tremors as eight of Roswell's political hopefuls have prepared to run for election day Nov. 5. And the race's fault line is clear: Development.

“Roswell is known for mud-slinging, and that’s a terrible thing to be known for,” said Theo Keyserling with Positivity Roswell, a group that formed in 2017 to encourage civility in politics and spur higher turnout. “… We’re hoping people will rise above again.”

Mud is being slung over how development affects traffic and schools. Some in Roswell feel dense residential housing like apartments congests roads and adds children into classrooms who might move away quickly. Others feel smart development is the only way to bring everyone into the growing area.

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Worries about development and a council unmotivated to compromise have created what some say is a toxic climate in which misinformation steers the political conversation.

Over the past year, the city’s three races for council seats have created all sorts of drama:

• Now-candidate Geoff Smith four years ago as a private citizen claimed that his current opponent, incumbent Mike Palermo, was too young and against growth, and that another incumbent Marcelo Zapata, fluent in four languages, "barely speaks English" and had just moved to town." Now that the newsletter has resurfaced, Smith said he regretted part of his statement but refused to answer specific questions about the situation.

• City manager Gary Palmer has threatened to bar Palermo from city offices and investigate him for allegations of demeaning employees.

• Former Mayor Jere Wood earlier this month filed an ethics complaint against Palermo and Zapata claiming they didn't properly set up his campaign committee; Wood supports Palermo's rival, Smith. Palermo called the complaint "baseless" and "disappointing" on Facebook.

• An open race for a seat was created when Councilman Sean Groer, tired of the nasty politics, resigned in August and left town. The race has drawn four candidates: Keith Goeke, Christine Hall, Lisa Holland and Kay Howell.

The level of distrust in city politics is so great, city employees in May 2018 set up a page on Roswell's website to dispel false claims that run rampant on social media. It's called "Roswell Rumors Page" and can be found under the city website's "government" tab or at

Political rancor is seen all over metro Atlanta, but this isn't any city. The 165-year-old municipality wields power, with nearly 100,000 residents and money — the median income is $87,911, according to census data, compared to the Fulton County median of $61,336.

In a display of its economic clout, Roswell recently negotiated with the state's transportation officials to pay $15 million — less than the state requested — toward a $60 million new interchange at Holcomb Bridge Road, the only access to Ga. 400 within city limits.

Wood, who helped form modern Roswell after 20 years in office, understands the stresses of a city struggling with traffic and development, saying it’s nothing new.

“Roswell’s been stirred up for a while,” he said.

Wood said trying to stop high-density development isn’t going to work. He said he loved Roswell when it was a town of 3,000 people and he loves it now.

“I don’t want to change, I don’t want to get any older,” said the 70-year-old with a laugh.

The city’s population grew 1,600% from 1970 to 2017, according to U.S. Census data.

Tectonic tension

Roswell resident Beth McCraney came to the East Roswell Library, one of the city’s two early voting precincts, Wednesday with development on her mind, saying that’s why she voted for incumbents Palermo and Zapata.

“It’s just going to overcrowd,” she said of high-density development.

McCraney, who has been in the city 15 years and lives on the east side of town, said she feels one recently approved project in particular is energizing voters.

After eight hours of meetings in June, the City Council approved the $75 million East Roswell Village project, which is set to bring 400 apartments and townhomes along with retail space to a former Super Target site on Holcomb Bridge Road.

When the crowd realized it had passed, dozens of people walked out. One man wagged his finger at the City Council as he left, saying, "Shame on you." And police were concerned when someone posted online the home address of the councilwoman who cast the deciding vote.

The candidates McCraney said she supported, Palermo and Zapata, were the only councilmembers to vote against the project at the former Target site.

BACKGROUND | Roswell approves 350-apartment mixed-use development after testy talks

She said more apartments would stress infrastructure, specifically the roads and schools. As a former teacher, she feels children in apartments are in families that can’t afford to be there.

“Apartments is transiency, people come in and then they move out,” she said. “It’s hard for the teachers to be effective.”

Apartment-dwellers at the meetings spoke out against what they felt was a mischaracterization of those who don’t own property in affluent North Fulton.

“I watched as the inner-circle of Roswell approve more high-density projects and fundamentally change the character of Roswell,” Palermo said.

Palermo said his push for transparency around developments and their finances has created friction and resistance this election.

But like real fault lines, Roswell’s division isn’t as simple as it seems.

Dutch Earle, 67, said he also disliked the Target project, but he didn’t back Palermo and Zapata.

Earle, who has been in Roswell for 26 years, said Wednesday outside the library he had just voted for Lisa Holland in the open race, Zapata’s opponent Don Horton and Palermo’s opponent Geoff Smith.

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Don’t get him wrong, Earle is against dense development and congested traffic, but a cohesive City Council is more important to him than the staunchness of a candidate’s opposition to apartments.

“It’s in part to have a board that can constructively challenge each other,” he said.

That toxic political climate was part of the reason former Councilman Sean Groer decided to leave the council and move his family to Chattanooga, he said in a Facebook post from his since-deleted campaign page. When contacted by a reporter on Tuesday, he said he’d rather not talk about city council matters.

“I’ve moved out of the city and moved on,” said Groer, who supported the Target project.

He's moved out of the city, but it appears Groer has not moved on. At 2:20 p.m. on a recent Saturday, Groer left this comment on a Facebook post from Zapata: "Dishonest doesn't even begin to describe my feelings about you."

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There are three city council elections and one race for municipal judge. All four are contested. Here’s who is running:

Post 1: Former council member Donald J. Horton will face off against incumbent Marcelo Zapata.

Post 2: Incumbent Michael Palermo runs against Geoff Smith.

Post 3 Councilman Sean Groer decided not to seek re-election. Keith Goeke, Christine Hall, Lisa Holland and Kay Howell are set to run for that seat.

Municipal judge: Incumbent Brian Hansford runs against Philip Mansell.

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