A power struggle in Stonecrest boiled over last week, leading residents to take notice of the dysfunction.
During a Friday meeting called by four councilmembers, Mayor Jason Lary said he felt “bullied,” “intimidated” and “pushed into a corner” by the City Council before abruptly ending the meeting minutes after it began.
“This meeting is over,” he said as the YouTube live video’s stream was cut.
It was the second abruptly canceled meeting since mid-October, showing that divisions between Lary and the majority of the Council have only worsened over the past few months. Jazzmin Cobble, one of the four councilmembers the mayor referred to, said the mayor canceled the meeting to avoid discussing certain issues, specifically allegations of financial misuse and murky contracts.
Residents worry that the disagreements will stifle progress for one of DeKalb’s newest and most populous cities.
“While I presumed there would be controversy at the meeting, I didn’t think that any individual would try to unilaterally shut it down,” resident Dave Marcus said. “(More meetings being canceled) would be such a disservice to the city and to the citizens that I just can’t imagine that happening.”
The Jan. 29 meeting was announced by multiple councilmembers Thursday with the release of a lengthy agenda packet. Up for discussion were controversial proposals such as a gas station moratorium, an updated purchasing policy for the city and multiple requests for internal investigations and financial audits.
In an emailed statement, Lary told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the meeting was improperly called because his office was not involved in creating or distributing the agenda packet. The statement said, “It was clear that the 150-page packet was decided on and prepared by four members of council which violates the open meeting act and calls in to question several ethical violations.”
Lary’s statement did not address allegations of financial misuse or irregularities, which have been raised by councilmembers. The mayor did not provide specific answers to a list of emailed questions by The AJC.
According to Stonecrest’s charter, the mayor and one councilmember or three councilmembers have the authority to call a special meeting as long as 24 hours notice is given to residents. The mayor or a majority of the Council can cancel a regular meeting “for any reason,” but it’s unclear if that applies to special called meeting as well.
Cobble said the city clerk was provided with the agenda packet Thursday but “was ordered” by the mayor to not to post it on the city’s website or in City Hall.
Instead, the agenda was posted on On Common Ground News, a local newspaper, which Cobble said fulfills the requirements of the Open Meetings Act. She added that the four councilmembers who called the meeting, which also included Robert Turner, George Turner and Tammy Grimes, never met in person to create the agenda packet, which she said would have violated the act.
“I think that goes to show that we’re dealing with some control issues,” she said, adding that she thinks Lary has been overreaching his powers by dictating most of the items on meeting agendas. The mayor has said one item can be added to the agenda by the Council without his approval, per the city charter.
Among the topics for Friday’s meeting was the use of roughly $6 million worth of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds. The city, which was allocated those funds by the county, gave it all to Municipal Resource Partners, a nonprofit founded in May 2020, to manage and distribute.
However, Cobble claims she and her fellow councilmembers have been denied more details on how those funds were spent or why the newly founded nonprofit was the sole recipient. The organization’s founder, Thompson Kurrie Jr., was also the first city attorney for Stonecrest before stepping down in 2019.
“When you’re met with pushback, it makes you think that what you think is happening truly is,” Cobble said. “It’s something we’re trying to reel in — how the finances of our city are being administered.”
Lary said a Feb. 8 meeting will discuss the use of COVID-19 relief funds, purchasing policy changes and some city contracts. More detail will be provided ahead of that meeting, he said.
On Oct. 12, another meeting never got off the ground because the mayor and Council couldn’t agree on a meeting agenda. The five councilmembers and the mayor deadlocked with a 3-3 vote, ending the meeting.
In November, Lary was granted medical leave through March so he could battle a second round of cancer — he was previously diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer in 2018 but didn’t take any time off during his radiation treatments. He made a surprise return Jan. 25.
While on medical leave, he still performed his daily duties as mayor but was not required to attend city meetings. According to the city charter, the mayor or a councilmember would forfeit their seat if they miss one-third of regularly scheduled City Council meetings within a three-month period without being excused by the Council. The charter led to lawsuits against Cobble over missed meetings in 2019, but a judge ended up denying the petition.
Since that issue took place, Lary and Cobble have not spoken outside of city meetings, according to Cobble. She added that Lary rarely speaks to any of the other councilmembers outside of required interactions.
“The lack of communication is not due to an illness or an absence,” she said. “It’s most certainly due to some personality challenges and some desire for unilateral decision making and a lame duck council that causes us to have these communication issues.”
Cobble said the Council is looking into options to respond to the canceled meetings. She wouldn’t elaborate on specifics but said the Council is weighing “which one does less harm to the city.”
Residents, including Marcus, are contemplating whether any lofty goals will be accomplished while the current administration is in place. Lary, the founding mayor of Stonecrest, won reelection in 2019 with 55% of the vote and won’t have to run again until 2023. Three councilmembers, including Cobble, are up for reelection at the end of 2021.
“Given the current people who are in office and given the current charter of the city, I’m not sure how I see that it will be resolved,” Marcus said. “And maybe that’s the biggest concern.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com