In Stonecrest’s mayoral race, political rivalry comes to a head

Current Mayor Jason Lary and former councilwoman Diane Adoma are both running this fall to be the leader of the city of Stonecrest.

Credit: AJC file/handout

Credit: AJC file/handout

Current Mayor Jason Lary and former councilwoman Diane Adoma are both running this fall to be the leader of the city of Stonecrest.

The rifts began long before the campaigning did.

Just months after the city of Stonecrest was founded in DeKalb County, a bitter rivalry emerged between two of the city’s elected officials, Mayor Jason Lary and former councilwoman Diane Adoma.

Adoma is now challenging Lary for his seat in this fall’s municipal elections, bringing their conflicts to the forefront with voters. A third candidate, Charles Hill Jr., will join them on the ballot for mayor.

All three candidates have pitched ways to improve Stonecrest’s business landscape and engage residents. But Lary and Adoma have largely focused their harshest criticism on one another; each has characterized the other as power-hungry and hard to collaborate with.

Adoma, describing Lary as a "bully," said his administration has been non-transparent and defined by unkept promises. Lary, the first mayor in Stonecrest's two-year history, said Adoma is too conservative and did not get much done for her district while she was on the council.

Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary and parks director Sean DePalma at the Browns Mill Recreation Center. The city announced plans to replace the playground equipment.

Credit: City of Stonecrest

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Credit: City of Stonecrest

For the young city of more than 54,000 residents — the largest in DeKalb County — the election for mayor on Nov. 5 sets the trajectory for the next several years in Stonecrest as the city grows and development increases. Three seats on the five-member Stonecrest council, including Adoma’s former post, are also up for election.

“We were sold a bill of goods and we were told our lives were going to be better,” Adoma told a crowd of voters at a recent candidates’ forum.

The mayor said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Adoma “didn’t want to be on the team,” describing himself as the team leader and Adoma as a team member.

Since 2017, as discussions and ordinances came before the council, Adoma often acted as the foil to the mayor. She fought back against his unsuccessful attempts to increase his salary. When three top city officials resigned earlier this year, she questioned whether it was evidence of mismanagement within the mayor's office. And she criticized the city's purchase of a piece of land priced higher than it was appraised for earlier this year.

Her conflicts with the city administration came to a head last month when she qualified to run for mayor and was told she had to vacate her seat. City officials cited a state law that they say removed her from office immediately because the future four-year mayoral term would overlap with her current four-year council term, which was slated to end in 2021. Adoma still tried to participate in a City Council meeting, and the city took out a restraining order against her.

» READ MORE: Judge signs restraining order against mayoral candidate

The city later issued a press release estimating the episode cost taxpayers $13,000 in attorney fees.

Emails obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show that the officials’ rivalry is not just political, but personal. In January, Adoma tried to schedule a meeting with Lary to discuss some recent audits. The mayor declined, according to copies of the emails obtained through a Georgia Open Records Act request.

Diane Adoma in front of a cell tower that was built earlier this year behind a Stonecrest neighborhood. Adoma supported the residents’ efforts to get answers about whether the cell tower was properly built.

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“This is unsatisfactory and you need to sit down and talk with me ASAP to discuss city concerns and solutions,” Adoma wrote, before they exchanged several other emails.

“Keep doing it your way and you’ll continue to get this same reaction from me,” the mayor wrote. “Continue to be the lying, angling, self-centered, attention seeking, self-absorbed person that you are. I will not waste one moment with you. Our encounters will ONLY be at council work sessions, public gatherings and city council meetings.”

In response, Adoma forwarded the mayor’s email to the city attorney and other city council members, adding, “This is far from mayoral…”

The mayor said he refutes the allegations of bullying, but admitted that he can come off as “aggressive” at times.

“I’m a very deliberate man. At almost 60 years old, I’m not up for a bunch of nonsense,” he said. “I just want to get stuff done.”

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Lary, 57, has been mayor since May 2017, after residents voted to create the city of Stonecrest. He led the charge to found the city, preaching a message of economic development and thriving business for southeastern DeKalb County.

“Those first two years were the foundation, the brick and mortar of Stonecrest,” Lary told the AJC, giving himself an A- grade for his first term. “Now we’re in the growth mode.”

Lary heralded upcoming developments around the Mall at Stonecrest and the city’s industrial parks.

At the candidate forum, Adoma told voters that she wants to improve customer service in the code enforcement division, promote public transit in east DeKalb and be more accessible to residents. But above all, she sees the race as a referendum on transparency and accountability in city government.

“If you build a house on a weak foundation, the house is going to collapse,” said Adoma, 61.

Charles Hill, Jr. (via Facebook)

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Hill, a graduate of Lithonia High School, owns a real estate development firm in the city of Atlanta, according to his campaign website. He is running on a platform of ethics, promoting small business and making individual neighborhoods more vibrant. He previously ran for mayor in 2017. Hill did not respond to questions emailed to him for this article.

Adoma was the only mayoral candidate to attend the recent forum. Lary said he did not show up because of the restraining order against Adoma, although the order does not specifically mention the mayor. “I’m not going to put the city in jeopardy. I represent the city,” he said. Hill has not publicly said why he did not attend.

Lary was never mentioned by name at the event, but his presence was still felt, as Adoma landed several shots against him and his record.

While answering a question about how she would collaborate with others, Adoma said, “I’m not gonna bully you.” It drew large laughs and cheers from the crowd.

Several voters at the forum said they were leaning toward voting for Lary, and said he should be given the chance to continue executing his vision for Stonecrest after just two years in office.

Residents like Malaika Wells, however, said she does not plan to vote to re-elect Lary.

“I think he has an agenda that’s not inclusive,” Wells said. She hasn’t made up her mind between Adoma and Hill, but said she wished Adoma interacted more with her constituents when she was a councilwoman. The young city, she said, needs “moderate, balance respectful, collaborative leadership. And an administration whose first priority is to listen to all of the residents.”