January 29, 2018 South Fulton: South Fulton Mayor Bill Edwards speaks during a Town Hall Discussion on a ordinance to hold parents more accountable for their children's actions at the South Fulton County Government Annex Building on Monday, January 29, 2018, in South Fulton. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

South Fulton Mayor Bill Edwards investigated in development deal

South Fulton’s mayor could be removed from office later this month as part of an ongoing dispute about who should be funding tax abatements in the two-year-old city.

In an escalation of an already tense dispute, City Council voted 4-3 Monday to investigate Mayor Bill Edwards. The decision comes as the City Council is investigating Councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis, who is accused by her colleagues of directing a development deal to Fulton County instead of the city.

The city will hold a hearing Dec. 30 that could result in both of the elected officials’ removal from office.

Willis was re-elected to a four-year term in November, and her attorney maintains she could be sworn in again in January regardless of the outcome this month. Edwards’ term expires Dec. 31, 2021.

The elected officials are not accused of any crimes, but some council members have said the pair acted in the county’s best interest, not the city’s, when they helped Halperns’ Steak and Seafood Co. expand in Willis’ district.

“The tax base of the city of South Fulton is being raided by Fulton County, and the city of South Fulton should in no way be aiding that,” said John Mrosek, an attorney representing the city.

The South Fulton city council passed a resolution in September saying that they should be the only ones to offer incentives to companies within the city.

In October, Willis spoke in favor of the $27 million Halperns’ deal in front of the Development Authority of Fulton County. Al Nash, the development authority’s director, said Edwards and the South Fulton economic development director sent the company to the county board.

“If the mayor is a catalyst behind it, or a part of it, at this time it’s only appropriate for us” to investigate, said Mark Baker, chair of the city development authority and the mayor pro tem. “He definitely should be reprimanded, if it was done with intention.”

Baker said he was in favor of removing Edwards from office, depending on what evidence from the hearing showed.

Edwards did not respond to texts or phone calls from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution seeking comment about his involvement. Willis’ attorney, Antavius Weems, would not answer questions about the case on Tuesday.

During a meeting Monday, Weems said he intended to challenge the planned hearing. Last week, a judge dismissed a similar case against Willis because the city failed to properly sign the accusations against her. Mrosek maintained the dismissal was in error.

“This is much more long and drawn out than it ever should have been,” he said. The process has so far cost the city more than $20,000.

Some council members have gotten fed up. Councilwoman Catherine Rowell called it a “circus” Monday.

“This is just disturbing on so many levels,” she said then. Rowell did not respond to a phone call seeking additional comment.

In deciding to move forward, again, with a hearing, the council rejected a suggestion that the dispute go to mediation, or that it be heard by the ethics board.

Baker said the amount of money that’s at stake warrants an investigation. He and others allege that South Fulton could be out $7 million in fees as a result of Halperns’ going to the county for help. Development authorities collect revenue by taking a small percentage of the bonds they issue on behalf of businesses seeking tax breaks.

“I just want to make sure people are doing right by the city,” Baker said. “I think $7 million is worth an investigation, a professional investigation.”

Other council members said they just want to know the truth.

“We’re trying to get to the facts and we’re struggling to get there,” Councilwoman Naeema Gilyard said Monday.

Khalid Kamau, another member of council, said he voted in favor of investigating Edwards because he thought it seemed like the mayor had been trying to avoid testifying in a hearing about what had happened with Halperns’.

Kamau said residents voted to create the city to have a say in how land was developed. Elected officials interfering to give that control to the county goes against what residents sought, he said.

Baker, the mayor pro tem, said it’s important to get to the bottom of the issue. He called the investigation a “rough patch” for the city of 100,000, but said it would strengthen South Fulton in the long run.

“It’s not something we want to be known for,” he said. “Sometimes you have to rip the Band-Aid off and address issues. If you have a foundation that’s unstable, you can’t build on that.”

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