Stonecrest’s mayor is touting the city’s efforts to bring financial relief to businesses during the pandemic, but city councilmembers Monday defied him, opening an investigation into how $6 million worth of funds were managed.
The CARES Act Relief Grant program and its oversight have been a sore spot between Mayor Jason Lary and the five members of the City Council. Councilmembers have raised questions over the program’s efficiency, ethics and record-keeping, while Lary argues that their fears are misplaced and mistimed.
“Every dime is accounted for,” he said Monday evening. “Everything happened the way it should be, and if I get a little overly passionate when people use words other than ‘excellent’ to describe this program, this is why. They did a fantastic job.”
Those passions have boiled over the past few months, culminating in the last-minute cancellation of a special called meeting in late January, where the Council would have discussed allegations of financial misuse and expired contracts.
Three more special meetings, lasting a total of eight hours, have taken place over the past four days to address those issues. Councilwoman Jazzmin Cobble said the mayor has been blocking the discussion, requiring the lengthy special meetings.
On Sunday, the City Council approved an investigation into the COVID-19 relief program. City Attorney Winston Denmark will look into the program’s administration and report back to the council.
In conjunction with the CARES program investigation, the council voted to drop Coleman Talley as their assistant city attorney. Thompson Kurrie Jr., who works at Talley’s law firm, is also the founder of Municipal Resource Partners, a newly founded nonprofit that received the $6 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds to disperse on the city’s behalf. Cobble said the city’s reliance on, and multiple relationships with Kurrie and Talley were concerning.
In addition, councilmembers have said they’ve been denied city financial records related to the CARES program.
“When documents that deal with city business are not provided when asked, that concerns me,” Councilwoman Tammy Grimes said.
Lary told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the decision to hire Municipal Resource Partners was made while he was battling cancer for the second time.
Clarence Boone, the city’s economic development director, gave a presentation during Monday’s meeting to try to explain the CARES program. Nearly 450 businesses applied for a grant through the program, but more than 300 did not meet all of the qualifications. Grants totaling over $4 million were dispersed to 138 businesses, Boone said.
However, Cobble still questioned the city’s record-keeping. A spreadsheet shown during Boone’s presentation listed more expenditures than funds received, roughly a $65,000 error. His presentation included a $150,000 discrepancy in the amount of grant funds awarded through the program. Cobble also questioned how the city decided the amount to pay $510,000 to Municipal Resource Partners for its services in dispersing about $4 million worth of relief grants.
“What was provided brings up more questions than the answers it provides,” Cobble said. “The numbers don’t make sense.”
Boone said he would work on collecting those answers and would report back to the Council.
Lary abstained from Sunday’s votes in protest, claiming the meeting was illegally organized and an act of collusion against his administration.
“I’m not going to participate in any illegal vote,” he said during the meeting. “... You have to rush in and do it your way, like it’s a coup or you’re ransacking the Capitol. I’m very disappointed.”
On Sunday, Lary reiterated his claims that the Council-led special meetings held Friday and Sunday were illegal, but he was not able to cancel them because they were hosted by Councilmember Rob Turner and not the mayor’s office.
“Colluding is colluding, and that’s what you all do,” Lary said. “Everything that adversely affects my administration, I’m going to (file) litigation over, because the whole thing is illegal.”
The council also passed a resolution preventing one person from cancelling special called meetings. Last week Lary abruptly ended a meeting moments after it began by closing the gathering on Zoom. That now requires a majority vote by the mayor and Council or a failure to maintain a quorum.
“The likelihood of it happening again may be great, and we don’t want it to happen with us having no recourse,” Grimes said Sunday before Mayor Pro Tem George Turner added that, “This is why this meeting had to exist.”
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