‘Shady and underhanded’: Mayor of Stonecrest furious after late-night vote

This is a screenshot of Stonecrest's City Council meeting on March 22.

Credit: City of Stonecrest

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This is a screenshot of Stonecrest's City Council meeting on March 22.

Credit: City of Stonecrest

In a late-night decision after the Stonecrest mayor left a meeting to celebrate his 59th birthday, the City Council voted to support changing the city’s charter, which would strip his position of many of its powers.

The move is only the latest dysfunction among Stonecrest city leaders. The mayor called the council’s move “a power grab” that does not reflect what voters wanted when the city was created four years ago.

The work to redraw the city’s charter is now in the hands of the state Legislature, which could approve the change before the current session ends next week.

The City Council voted 4-1 Monday night to support Senate Bill 21 that would change the city’s governmental power structure, including preventing the mayor from voting unless there’s a tie. The proposal was brought up by Councilwoman Jazzmin Cobble about 12:45 a.m. Tuesday, more than six hours after the meeting began.

“This will probably wake everyone up who has fallen asleep. So get ready,” Cobble said during the meeting, “I’m going to ask to provide support to the Stonecrest delegation to support SB 21, which makes changes to our charter.”

Mayor Jason Lary, whose disagreements with Cobble and other city leaders have been well-documented, was furious following the vote.

“It’s shady and underhanded,” Lary told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They did that in the cover of darkness. I’m on the meeting the whole time. Why do you add an agenda item after I’m gone at almost one o’clock in the morning?”

Lary said he may report council members to the county’s ethics commission. His ire also extends to Sen. Emanuel Jones, who primarily sponsored Senate Bill 21.

“I’m considering (reporting them), and I’m consulting with legal counsel,” Lary said, adding that he believes Jones has a vendetta against him and the city.

Jones, whose Senate district includes a small portion of Stonecrest, refuted that his bill is a personal jab at the mayor, adding that accusations of a vendetta are “absolutely ridiculous.”

The mayor’s role

When Stonecrest was formed in 2017, Jones said the mayor’s role was intended to be more as a “ceremonial head,” which is mentioned in the charter. However, the mayor has the ability to preside over meetings, control meeting agendas and vote alongside the five councilmembers.

Lary has abruptly canceled multiple meetings over the past year. Cobble and other councilmembers say that is because he’s attempting to avoid discussing certain issues, specifically accusations of financial misuse and murky contracts.

Jones said his bill seeks to correct what was created four years ago. The Senate bill is a second attempt to create a weak mayor, strong City Council form of government, he said.

“If you look at my track record, what I’ve fought against my career and in the legislature has been the abuse of power. That’s what I saw,” Jones said. “That’s what I heard early on (with Stonecrest), and for the last four years, it’s only gotten worse.

In March 2020, Jones sponsored Senate Bill 469, which aimed to accomplish many of the same governmental changes, including reducing the mayor’s powers. That bill, which Lary called “a mayor killer,” never made it past the Senate.

Explore‘It’s a mayor killer’: Bill would shift powers in Stonecrest government

The latest iteration of the bill also includes term limits and affirms that the mayor and councilmembers have part-time positions with part-time salaries. Lary said those changes go against the wishes of residents who voted for cityhood.

“I’m serving under the conditions that the majority of the citizens voted for with the City of Stonecrest. That’s how I’m serving the people,” Lary said. “But you have a few people who want to change it and kill it for vindictive reasons.”

The bill also expands the circumstances in which city leaders can be granted excused absences from meetings, which has been a long-standing issue in Stonecrest.

Cobble was unsuccessfully sued by the city and citizens after she missed two meetings for work-related reasons in 2019. Cobble and the mayor have had a contentious relationship ever since.

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Citizen input

Councilman Jimmy Clanton was the sole dissenting vote at Monday’s meeting, saying he believes public input is being purposefully avoided. Unlike Tucker, another one of DeKalb‘s youngest cities, Stonecrest hasn’t formed a Charter Commission to recommend changes and collect public feedback.

“It’s like every year our legislators have made a sport out of attacking our charter for a number of reasons,” Clanton said. “... The efforts that they’re making to change the charter is not a genuine effort that came out of a need expressed by any of the citizens of Stonecrest at large.”

During Monday’s meeting, Cobble and other councilmembers cited a March 2020 town hall, held by Jones, where residents were able to give their opinions on the previous Senate bill, which would’ve accomplished the same goal as the new bill.

Bill Bruckner, a resident who created a petition last year to fight the previous bill, said he was at that meeting and doesn’t believe that his concerns were heard.

“I complained at Sen. Jones that with something as dramatic as this kind of a change, there was no referendum and no citizen input,” Bruckner said. “He was kind of arrogant about it, brushed me off and said, ‘I don’t need citizen input,’ which for a public servant is pretty remarkable.”

There is a petition in favor of Senate Bill 21, which has roughly 250 signatures

The bill’s future

The bill has passed the Senate and is expected to be placed on the House’s consent agenda in the next few days. Both Jones and members of the council who voted in favor of the charter change say the reason for Tuesday’s late-night vote after Lary left was that the House requested a new resolution in support of the bill.

Mayor Pro Tem George Turner, who presided in Lary’s stead, said the same thing in an emailed statement.

“It was brought to our attention during the meeting that this would be our last chance to send additional support of the charter change since the 2021 legislative session ends next week,” his email said. Councilman Rob Turner, Councilwoman Tammy Grimes and Cobble did not respond to requests for comment.

Given that Jones expects the bill to breeze through the House, he said a veto from Gov. Brian Kemp would be the only thing that could stop it.

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For Lary, the disagreements between him and most of the City Council seem unrepairable at this point — regardless of what happens with this bill. He said the other three councilmembers who voted in support of the bill follow Cobble “because they’re sheep.”

“It’s like managing angry teenagers,” Lary said. “... I’m sorely, sorely disappointed with these people because they systematically shut out myself and Jimmy Clanton, and they systematically shut out the voice of the citizens. It’s voter suppression.”

Three councilmembers, including Cobble, are up for re-election this November, and Lary said new leadership will be the only way to fix these rifts between him and the City Council. If Jones’ bill is signed into law, the City Council elections will carry even more weight for Stonecrest’s immediate future.

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