South Fulton in turmoil as council members sue mayor, city manager quits

South Fulton mayor-elect Khalid Kamau speaks with Old National Merchants Association members during a toy drive on Thursday, December 9, 2021. Miguel Martinez / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

South Fulton mayor-elect Khalid Kamau speaks with Old National Merchants Association members during a toy drive on Thursday, December 9, 2021. Miguel Martinez / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Five of the seven members of South Fulton’s city council are suing to throw Mayor Khalid Kamau out of office — in part, for allegedly recording closed-door executive sessions for his “personal benefit.”

The suit, filed Tuesday, comes less than a week after City Manager Tammi Saddler Jones resigned.

The five council members filed a civil rights case in Fulton County Superior Court, alleging kamau violated the city charter.

“The mayor has repeatedly betrayed the confidence of the City and the City Council by intentionally and knowingly disclosing confidential information of the City for his and others’ personal benefit since his election to office,” says the filing by council members Carmalitha Gumbs, Corey Reeves, Jaceey Sebastian, Natasha Williams and Helen Willis.

“Most recently, it has come plaintiffs’ attention that the mayor has been recording the confidential executive sessions of the City Council — against the expressed wishes of City Council members. When confronted by plaintiffs and asked to cease his recording, the mayor refused, stating that he would record all future executive sessions and further threatened to use the recordings to sue the City Council and or its members.”

Only council members Catherine Foster-Rowell and Linda Pritchett do not appear as plaintiffs on the suit.

Reached by phone Thursday morning, kamau expressed astonishment and said that was the first he had heard of the lawsuit.

“I spent two hours with council members yesterday in discussion, trying to find a way forward since our city manager has resigned,” he said. “I spent two hours with council members — it (the lawsuit) never came up.”

He spent more time with council members at another event, and on Tuesday was part of an eight-hour council meeting of which five hours were spent in executive session, he said.

Kamau said he was served with the legal paperwork early Thursday afternoon.

The 98-page lawsuit says kamau’s conduct prevents the council from effectively governing. Problems emerged last summer when the city conducted a confidential investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct by a city employee. Kamau publicized those discussions, and on July 18 sought to fire City Attorney Vincent Hyman, which he couldn’t do without council’s approval, the suit says.

Kamau filed his own lawsuit on that issue last summer, but dismissed it in December.

For months afterward, he criticized the use of executive sessions and said he wanted to discuss all city business in public, plaintiffs allege.

During executive session at a November 2022 meeting, council members discovered kamau was recording it on a cell phone, the suit says. During a Facebook Live broadcast in December, kamau said he would continue to do so and release those discussions to the public. He has since refused to stop recording executive sessions, according to the filing.

In addition to seeking kamau’s removal from office, council members want an injunction or restraining order to keep him from recording executive sessions and making those discussions public.

“To be clear, the City Council has only ever used its executive sessions as authorized by the Georgia Open Meetings Act, which makes it unclear how, or why, the Mayor would seek to use these recordings in a lawsuit against the City Council,” the request says.

Georgia law allows public officials to discuss property transactions, potential litigation and employee matters in private. Council members say they can’t effectively do so under the threat of being recorded.

“In short, the Council Members are being held hostage by the Mayor; forced to choose between either betraying the City’s confidence and allowing its confidential information to be recorded and disclosed, or simply not addressing these important matters at all,” the suit says.

South Fulton, with a population of 109,000, is Fulton County’s newest city, incorporating in 2017. Mayor khalid is described on the city’s website as a “community activist and Southern, Black, Christian Socialist,” and the first Black Lives Matter organizer elected to public office. He was voted on to council in 2017 and elected mayor in 2021.

Williams was the only council member to answer an email Thursday. She did not reply to questions about the lawsuit against kamau, but commented on Saddler Jones’ departure.

“The City and the City Manager have resolved all differences,” she said. “We have accepted the City Manager’s resignation and thank her for her service to the City.”

A spokesman for Saddler Jones’ replied with a nearly identical statement. Saddler Jones’ March 1 resignation letter to City Clerk Corey Adams was nearly as terse.

She stepped down two weeks after council members Williams and Willis publicly denounced her longstanding complaints of a hostile work environment. Saddler Jones sent a letter to city elected officials Feb. 6 alleging that Williams and Willis “regularly publicly berated, demeaned and humiliated her,” interfering with her job performance.

Williams and Willis held a news conference to deny many of the allegations, and claim that no harm was meant. They made counter-accusations of a “smear campaign” against them on social media.

They further alleged Saddler Jones acted slowly on reopening the city pool, in submitting the city budget, concealed problems with documenting use of $1.9 million in federal CARES Act money and failure to use nearly $1 million in federal grants.