South Fulton drama a rude awakening after dream of new city

City Council Naeema Gilyard reacts during a hearing to remove Mayor Bill Edwards and councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis at the South Fulton City Hall, Dec. 30, 2019.

City Council Naeema Gilyard reacts during a hearing to remove Mayor Bill Edwards and councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis at the South Fulton City Hall, Dec. 30, 2019.

The new city of South Fulton was supposed to be a city on a hill, one for people around the region to look up to. Instead, successes of the first three years have been overshadowed by a steady series of foul-ups and strife.

The most recent turmoil featured villains on both sides, depending on who tells the tale. Four council members tried to remove the mayor and another council member from office for their roles in a development deal. Allegations of financial impropriety were lobbed at the accusers.

People are frustrated, and it isn't just because the City Council tried to oust its mayor (the council's only experienced politician) and another council member. Or fired its municipal court judge for allegedly bullying staff. Or that the city sued the county over who gets what land. Or that a council member whose elected colleague accused her of threatening her with a Taser filed a slander lawsuit. Or that no one seems to know what the mayor can veto. Or that they can't even figure out what to name the city.

Over the 15 years that new cities have been forming in metro Atlanta, there have been visible growing pains in nearly every one. Some struggled when they attempted to mimic the radical idea, popularized by Sandy Springs, of outsourcing municipal services to private contractors. Others stumbled because of political infighting and personal conflicts.

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

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But residents don’t care what happened elsewhere. They say the compounding of inexperience and drama among city leaders doesn’t allow South Fulton to reach its potential.

“Let me tell you how tired we all are,” Reginald Tatum told elected officials at a town hall attended by about 100 people earlier this month.

READ | South Fulton hired and fired a police chief in one day

Fed up, residents like Tatum are pushing back. Scores of them are consistently packing city meetings with standing-room-only crowds, voicing displeasure at their dysfunctional City Council and gathering documents under the Open Records Act to scrutinize council members’ spending.

The reaction has been so strong that state elected officials are taking notice. Georgia General Assembly members including Rep. Roger Bruce, D-South Fulton, who advocated for forming the city, said they want to change the founding document of the city — its charter — to fix some of the problems South Fulton faces.

“We can get things done, but we’re not going to get them done if we’re fighting with each other,” Bruce said.

He and other legislators said they weren’t ready to explain what they would change because the proposals are under attorney review.

South Fulton council members say they're doing good work in tough circumstances.

In 2019, the city of 100,000 paved 64 miles of road, increased the number of police officers by 49% and promised $17 million in infrastructure improvements.

City Councilmember Catherine Rowell sits among the other members of the council and mayor at the Inauguration Ceremony of the City of South Fulton Mayor & City Council in at B.E. Banneker High School in South Fulton, on April 29, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

Credit: Henry P. Taylor

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Credit: Henry P. Taylor

"Standing up a city, it's not a small feat," South Fulton council member Catherine Rowell said. "Nothing about government is easy."

That’s not enough for Rafer Johnson, a South Fulton resident who ran for mayor when the city was formed. Johnson said he and a group of other concerned residents are interested in putting the city back on track. They don’t think elected officials are creating the city they want to live in.

“As a body, they are not doing their jobs,” he said. “As a body, they have embarrassed us. As a body, they have hurt our city’s reputation and economic development.”

‘Not a cure-all’

South Fulton certainly isn't the only city in metro Atlanta that struggled at the start. In Fulton County alone, Johns Creek battled over whether the mayor should have the sole discretion to hire and fire key city officials more than six years after the city formed. Chattahoochee Hills elected officials couldn't make their early revenues cover the costs of city business. And in Milton's first year, the majority of its elected officials had ethics complaints filed against them.

Metro Atlantans might not think about it often, but there have been 10 new cities created since 2005, when Sandy Springs completed a 30-year crusade to carve a city from Fulton County. Like many cities, Sandy Springs went through the trouble because it wanted to chart its own path, from what gets built to how taxpayer money is spent.

Now, nearly 10% of the region’s population live in a city less than 15 years old.

Georgia State urban studies professor Jean-Paul Addie said that by the time a community gets to the stage of creating a city, residents usually have figured out the civic identity of what they’re creating. It’s a lot more difficult to start without an iconic symbol or gathering place for people to buy into.

He said the challenges of a fresh start are greater for places that are less affluent than Sandy Springs, because of the high cost of starting a city.

“It’d be more surprising if everything hit the ground peachy and everything worked,” Addie said.

He said that, in an age of instant gratification, people expect success right away. Cityhood has always been more complex.

“It’s not a cure-all,” he said of cityhood. “There’s positives that come with it, like self-determination. There’s a reason why incorporation makes sense, but there’s no one-size-fits-all model for cities and they’re all going to be grappling … with their own internal politics.”

That was the case with Milton.

Joe Lockwood, who was first elected as mayor of Milton in 2006, was re-elected to a fourth term on Tuesday. (AJC file photo)

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“You get seven people with great ideas, and everyone thinks it should be done they way they think it,” Mayor Joe Lockwood said.

Lockwood, the only mayor Milton has ever known, said those disputes can mean leaders spend all their time dealing with internal issues rather than running the city. He said there was so much dysfunction on the first council that there was a proposal to bring in outside help, “for lack of a better word, (a) psychologist.” He wasn’t in favor because he felt it was a bad use of taxpayer funds, and it didn’t happen.

READ | City of South Fulton mayor vetoes the name 'Renaissance'

Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker, who also faced a coup from council members, said the struggles South Fulton faces are worse than Johns Creek dealt with.

“Do I think what I’m observing seems fairly out of the ordinary and somewhat petty? Yes,” he said. “It feels like petty political squabbling among people who don’t like each other. It makes it very difficult for a city to progress under those circumstances.”

Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker. (BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL AJC File Photo)

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Voters overwhelmingly rejected forming the city of South Fulton at the start of the cityhood movement, in 2007. Over the next decade, residents saw cities throughout Fulton County grab hold of their own destinies. Cityhood proponents were left worried about annexation eating away at land that could form South Fulton. So they decided it was now or never. In 2016, the vote passed.

With the victory fresh in their minds, residents like Eliese Fisher expect progress, not discord.

Fisher said she moved to South Fulton during January 2016, in the middle of South Fulton’s cityhood fight. She said she had never been civically active before, but this moved her to get involved by canvassing. When they won? “I felt like it was part of my victory, I wanted to see what was going on so I stayed engaged.”

As a business consultant, she’s excited but cautiously optimistic about the city’s chances.

“Potential for this area is fantastic, but we have to be responsible toward our reputation. We have to be responsible stewards of the gem we have,” she said.

City Councilmember Khalid Kamau. (HENRY TAYLOR / AJC FILE PHOTO)

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Khalid Kamau, a member of the council, said he thinks many South Fulton residents are more concerned with appearance than action. He said residents of the majority-black city feel pressure to appear successful to overcome negative perceptions of the Southside.

“I do feel that our obsession with our image is stopping us from having the kind of robust debates that any burgeoning democracy would have,” he said.

Holiday headache

South Fulton’s drama peaked just before the holidays.

Council members were embroiled in an investigation and two hearings regarding whether Mayor Bill Edwards and Council member Helen Zenobia Willis improperly directed developer money away from the city and toward Fulton County's development authority.

Opponents of Edwards and Willis said the move could have cost South Fulton as much as $7 million, though an investigative report and interviews disputed that number.

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

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The attempts to remove Edwards and Willis from office failed, and Willis said she had been “vindicated,” though the hearing ended without council voting to exonerate her or Edwards.

“It’s time for us to move forward,” Willis said. “We have 100,000 people depending on us. We need to be working in a unified way.”

READ | Metro Atlanta city leader wants to jail parents for children's crimes

The division in the city, she said, makes residents distrust their government.

On Tuesday, City Council members agreed to pay $30,000 — bringing the price tag of the investigation to more than $90,000 — when they voted 4-3 to pay the legal fees of the pair.

Willis, who added the payments to the council’s agenda, also voted for the city to cover those fees, a vote deemed a conflict when it has come up in other cities.

Council member Kamau said the finance director might want to create a “make-it-go-away fund” to prepare for what he felt were the inevitable lawsuits against the city.

“Everybody is coming for their check,” he said.

‘Cut the crap’

Lots of new cities end up stumbling early, said Bodker, the only mayor Johns Creek has known. But in South Fulton, he said, the disputes began on Day One. Those squabbles make it harder to recruit the best employees and lure development.

“If you have a reputation for being crazy, then people tend to stay away,” Bodker said. “The governing body needs to get its collective stuff together and cut the crap.”

Chattahoochee Hills Mayor Tom Reed (Courtesy the city of Chattahoochee Hills)

Credit: Courtesy the city of Chattahoochee Hills

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Credit: Courtesy the city of Chattahoochee Hills

Tom Reed, the mayor of nearby Chattahoochee Hills, disagreed that South Fulton is worse off than most. While Sandy Springs had decades to consider what its government would look like, other new cities were more rushed. He said that contributed to the troubles many faced in their infancies, as they hurried to create police departments and decide what services to offer.

Reed also said South Fulton residents didn’t get to choose their borders, so the city’s jagged edges mean that sometimes one has to drive through two different cities to get from one part of town to another.

READ | After lawsuit, Fulton agrees to $1M sale of Wolf Creek to South Fulton

“For a neophyte elected official, it’s kind of tough,” Reed said. “Is there something especially bad going on in the city of South Fulton? I think the answer is no. It’s a little bit harder row to hoe because of the city’s design.”

Johnson, the former mayoral candidate, said for all the issues South Fulton has faced, he still thinks creating a city was the right choice. The opportunities are greater when leaders are closer to residents, he said — they have the opportunity to do more and get more.

For Kamau, the potential is endless, though there is still work to do.

“My vision is that we could be a real-life Wakanda,” he said. “We could be a city on a hill for the entire African diaspora. We could be a world-class city. We are poised.”

Councilmember Helen Willis' lawyer Antavius Weems says even if a scheduled Dec. 30 hearing resulted in her removal, her new term begins less than two days later.

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Why write this story?

Our reporters decided to take a look at the trials South Fulton has experienced in its first years as a city because they illustrate the problems many leaders have encountered in setting up new local governments.

“Standing up a city, it’s not a small feat,” as one council member says.

While many new cities have run into problems, South Fulton’s troubles seem more frequent, and have even caused state legislators to consider intervention to fix the issues they see. We wanted to find out what affect all the bickering has on the new city’s residents and on its potential to thrive.

Snapshot: The city of South Fulton

There are 97,277 residents in the city of South Fulton, which will celebrate its third birthday this spring. The population is 91.4% black, 5.1% non-Hispanic white, 2.5% Hispanic and 1.1% two or more races, according to Census data.

Nearly 70% of residents are homeowners. About 37% of residents older than 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 93.6% are high school graduates.

The median household income in the city is $61,702 and 10.7% of residents live in poverty.