Race for mayor between former coworkers divides tiny DeKalb town

Avondale Estates Mayor Jonathan Elmore (left) is facing a challenge from former city manager Clai Brown (right).

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Avondale Estates Mayor Jonathan Elmore (left) is facing a challenge from former city manager Clai Brown (right).

Avondale Estates has the feel of a charming English village with a pinch of Americana nostalgia. Tudor-style architecture lines its quiet downtown, accompanying a retro hot dog joint and the sign for a now-shuttered “Towne Cinema.”

This inside-the-Perimeter city is the kind where it’s easy to know everyone else who lives on your street. But under the surface, in this town of just 3,100, a battle for mayor has turned increasingly personal, reviving old disputes and forcing voters to pick sides. For many residents here, the election has revealed a divide among those with different visions for the growing, urbanizing city.

Mayor Jonathan Elmore is running for re-election Nov. 5 and is facing a challenge from his old colleague: longtime former city manager Clai Brown.

Brown served for several years under Elmore, but left in 2018 amid a firestorm over his unusual severance package — an issue that has loomed over Brown's campaign. Whether he resigned or was fired, Brown would be compensated with a year's salary plus payment for any accrued vacation and sick leave. That could have been worth more than $300,000, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported. That would have accounted for about 9 percent of the small city's anticipated 2018 expenditures.

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Avondale Estates is known for its Tudor-style architecture on its downtown corridor, including an old "Towne Cinema" sign.

Credit: Bill Banks for the AJC

Avondale Estates is known for its Tudor-style architecture on its downtown corridor, including an old "Towne Cinema" sign.

Credit: Bill Banks for the AJC

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Avondale Estates is known for its Tudor-style architecture on its downtown corridor, including an old "Towne Cinema" sign.

Credit: Bill Banks for the AJC

Credit: Bill Banks for the AJC

In late 2017, Brown said he wanted to resign as city manager after 10 years, saying Elmore and some commissioners had interfered with his job.

That's when news of the severance package came to light, sparking some squabbling between Brown and the city on whether he would stay or go. Lawyers eventually got involved, and the city settled with Brown, negotiating to pay him more than $100,000 as he left the city government.

» READ MORE: Brown era ends with unanimous commission vote for separation

The severance saga is so complex that Brown and Elmore don’t agree on many of the details. For example, the mayor said he didn’t know about the provision in Brown’s contract, since it was negotiated before he came into office. Brown maintains that the mayor and commissioners at the time agreed to the contract, which was public, and Elmore voted to renew it after he became mayor.

The former city manager said it’s an issue he encounters frequently as he meets with residents while campaigning to be mayor.

“It comes up. I’m happy and I’m open to discuss it,” said Brown, who was relatively well-liked by residents during his 10-year stint as city manager. “Small-town politics are tough, being so close where everybody knows each other.”

The mayor said the severance deal, which he called a “golden parachute,” was “the most unethical thing I’ve ever heard of for a municipal employee. … It was shocking.”

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In this 2017 file photo, Josh Williams brings his daughter Ava to Lake Avondale in Avondale Estates. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

In this 2017 file photo, Josh Williams brings his daughter Ava to Lake Avondale in Avondale Estates. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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In this 2017 file photo, Josh Williams brings his daughter Ava to Lake Avondale in Avondale Estates. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Elmore, 54, was first elected mayor in March 2015 in a special election. He’s lived in Avondale for 12 years and has a background in architectural design. Brown, 55, was born and raised in Avondale Estates; his father was the city’s longtime police chief and city manager. After a career working in management for Home Depot, Brown returned to Avondale in 2008 and was hired as city manager.

Both candidates support development, especially along the downtown corridor. Elmore has been especially pro-growth during this tenure as mayor, borrowing millions of dollars through bonds and establishing an Urban Redevelopment Agency. Brown believes his financial experience would help the city be more financially responsible; he criticized the city’s recent hiring of consultants to help out on development projects.

A changing city

The city has undergone some big changes in recent years. Large new developments close to the MARTA station promise to bring hundreds of new residents. And the Georgia Department of Transportation is working on a project that could change the look of U.S. 278, the city's primary thoroughfare that connects Decatur with Memorial Drive and I-285.

Voters said they want to see the downtown corridor become more vibrant, but they remain concerned about the availability of affordable housing.

According to the latest Census estimates, nearly 40 percent of the population is 55 or older. The city, which is about 90 percent white, is generally affluent, with a median household income of more than $100,000, much higher than the metro area’s median income. Politically, it tends to lean left, like much of DeKalb County.

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Lorna Triplett gets in 5 miles of running at Lake Avondale in Avondale Estates earlier this year. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Lorna Triplett gets in 5 miles of running at Lake Avondale in Avondale Estates earlier this year. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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Lorna Triplett gets in 5 miles of running at Lake Avondale in Avondale Estates earlier this year. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Heading into this fall’s elections, many Avondale Estates voters remain confused about some of the details of Brown’s severance package and the subsequent drama. Other residents, like Jenn Linke, said it disqualifies him as a possible choice.

“I don’t see how people can see past that,” said Linke, 41, who has volunteered for Elmore’s campaign. “He tried to take money from a city that he is now intending to serve. Whether he was successful or not, it was an unethical thing to begin with.”

At a recent forum for the candidates, the severance issue came up multiple times. When Elmore said he never knew about the deal, the packed crowd at Avondale Estates First Baptist Church loudly groaned. But the mayor also used the platform to blast Brown for taking the contract.

Brown has a group of longtime supporters who see him as best suited to unite the city.

“I think he will do a good job of bringing the city together. We have not been together in the past four years and that has been upsetting to some of us,” said Pat Frontier Maddox, 71, a lifelong resident. “I think he’s the one to take us into this next step, with the redevelopment of downtown.”

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Avondale Estates is known for its Fourth of July parade every year. JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL

Credit: Jonathan Phillips

Avondale Estates is known for its Fourth of July parade every year.  JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL

Credit: Jonathan Phillips

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Avondale Estates is known for its Fourth of July parade every year. JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL

Credit: Jonathan Phillips

Credit: Jonathan Phillips

Many of the discussions at the forum centered around typical local issues: street paving, annexation, public works. The candidates agreed that they want to see downtown revitalized. Brown said his vision and financial expertise as city manager paved the way for the new apartments near the MARTA station. Elmore said his plans have more "logic" than Brown's, highlighting the proposed "town green" near downtown.

Elmore said it is odd to be running against his former employee, though Brown said he feels a calling to serve the city that raised him.

“After the election,” the former city manager said, “we both are going to have a challenge to pull everybody together.”

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