South Fulton takes first step toward possible removal of council woman

South Fulton Mayor Bill Edwards (center) and members of city council are debating whether a council member should be removed from office for allegedly sending a development authority deal to Fulton County. Bob Andres / AJC FILE PHOTO

South Fulton Mayor Bill Edwards (center) and members of city council are debating whether a council member should be removed from office for allegedly sending a development authority deal to Fulton County. Bob Andres / AJC FILE PHOTO

Members of the South Fulton City Council voted Tuesday to investigate one of their own, a possible first step to removing from office an official who just won re-election.

The 4-3 vote on Tuesday to investigate councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis in the two-year-old city came after council members expressed concern that Willis diverted up to $7 million from the city.

Last month, Willis spoke in favor of a $27 million tax incentive deal at the Development Authority of Fulton County that would allow Halperns’ Steak and Seafood Co. to expand in the city. The authority approved it.

Willis' fellow council members suggested that she diverted the money by directing the company to the county development authority instead of the city's. Development authorities collect revenue by taking a small percentage of the bonds they issue on behalf of businesses seeking tax breaks.

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No one with the city or its development authority could provide a clear breakdown of where the $7 million estimate comes from.

Willis said she had not interfered with the Halperns’ deal.

“I found out about the development deal the day before it was supposed to be voted on,” she said. “Next thing I know, I’m accused of steering a development deal to the Fulton County authorities. It was already there. It was on the agenda to be voted on. All I did was speak in support of the project.”

The South Fulton City Council voted to investigate one of their own, Councilwoman Helen Z. Willis, on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019.


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Halperns’ is in Willis’ council district.

Al Nash, director of the Fulton development authority, confirmed Willis’ account. He said while he had talked to South Fulton Economic Development Director Christopher Pike, he had not talked to Willis until shortly before the October meeting, when she reached out to see how she could support the project.

Development Authority of Fulton County CEO Al Nash (center) makes a comment during a meeting at the Fulton County Government Center in Atlanta on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

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Nash said he heard that company officials were concerned about being able to get a deal through the city’s development authority, which formed in May and which has not yet approved any abatements.

“Their team felt like they couldn’t get it done there,” he said.

A city spokesperson did not respond to a request to speak to Pike or to the city manager about the concerns, and calls to Halperns’ were not returned.

In addition to questions about her actions at the development authority, the investigation will look into allegations that Willis mistreated staff and colleagues.

The city hired attorney John Mrosek at $180 an hour to perform the investigation.

City Council plans to meet and discuss the investigation at a Nov. 26 session; Mrosek said he is still researching whether or not that meeting has to be open to the public.

Richard T. Griffiths, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said his group cannot recall a similar situation where the lawmaker was not accused of illegal activity. The efforts to remove Willis are problematic, he said, because she was just elected and no crime has been alleged.

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“You can’t throw someone out for having bad judgment when they’ve just been re-elected,” Griffiths said. “This is going against the will of the public.”

If the city does move forward with an effort to remove Willis, Griffiths said, it would have to be conducted like a public trial, and no votes could be conducted in private. The city has already gone through a similar process in removing Tiffany Sellers, a municipal court judge.

City Councilwoman Rosie Jackson said she was relieved the Fulton County district attorney had decided not to press charges after a colleague accused her of threatening her with a Taser. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

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Councilwoman Rosie Jackson, who has feuded with Willis and who voted for the investigation, said elected officials took an oath to act in the city's best interest. She said South Fulton — a new city that is still forming its identity, including reconsidering its name — needs the money that comes from funding bond agreements more than Fulton County does.

“Why wouldn’t South Fulton reap the benefits?” she asked. “Fulton County will get a much bigger portion. We’ll get the drippings.”

Nash estimated the county development authority would bring in less than $34,000 in fees from the deal. While the county is abating some money for Halperns’ improvements, the company will still pay increased property and payroll taxes as it makes improvements and hires more people.

Mark Baker, chair of the city development authority and the mayor pro tem, said the South Fulton development authority had lost about $350,000 in fees when Halperns’ went through the county development authority, and other money that could go to the city was lost. He said he could not explain the discrepancy in the numbers.

Mark Baker, District 7, speaks during a South Fulton City Council meeting to decide whether to fire Judge Tiffany Sellers at Fulton County court system's South Service Center in South Fulton, Georgia on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. EMILY HANEY /

Credit: Emily Haney

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Credit: Emily Haney

But Baker said he was “taken aback” by what he called “the possibility of self-sabotage.”

“You have to serve the city,” he said. “When you have a board that’s established to bring development in that fashion to a city and it’s directed elsewhere, it’s unsettling. It does feel like there’s improprieties taking place. If it’s done intentionally, I would take it to be egregious.”

Other council members declined comment or did not respond to requests for comment. Bill Edwards, the mayor of South Fulton, said he had nothing to say about the matter.

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Willis, who ran for re-election unopposed, said she hoped the city development authority would thrive — it just wasn't yet fully functional. The investigation, she said, was happening for other reasons.

“If they want to spend taxpayer money to investigate me, that’s fine, but they’re going to find out I had nothing to do with Halperns’ using the Fulton County development authority,” Willis said. “I think it’s personal.”

Willis accused Jackson of threatening her with a Taser; Jackson then sued Willis for slander. Willis forwarded a letter Wednesday showing that the suit had been dismissed. The city has continued to struggle with negative headlines, something Willis said was more harmful to economic development than her actions.

“Who wants to do business with a city who has council members who don’t get along, who launch investigations of each other?” she asked. “It’s detrimental to our image. It does not put us in the best light.”

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