Clarkston is a city known for a plucky immigrant soccer team and for being a soft landing spot for refugees.
The town of 14,500 residents, more than half foreign-born, celebrates the moniker “most diverse square mile in America.” It’s one glorious welcome mat.
But in recent months, Clarkston has gained another image, one of political infighting, accusations of racial animus and a toxic workplace. The atmosphere has depleted the police department’s ranks.
Police staffing is down to about half its allotted 21 officers. I’m told the department will be down to nine cops (with two in the academy) in August.
The unpleasantness had brewed for months and spilled over in April when Police Chief Christine Hudson was suspended for five days by City Manager Shawanna Qawiy for infractions including insubordination.
Hudson, who’s been chief since 2012, responded with an EEOC complaint alleging the city manager is going after her because she’s white. Qawiy, who’s Black, has two years on the job.
To bolster the case, a former city employee signed an affidavit saying Qawiy has said, “You can’t trust (white people).”
Hudson’s complaint also alleges Qawiy has been ”padding my personnel file with pretextual and bogus write-ups.”
The chief has said she will retire, although not when.
Qawiy is not talking publicly. A WSB-TV crew recently sat outside her office for four hours for an interview that never occurred. She did not return my calls.
Qawiy’s response to the complaint said the chief’s discipline ”was based exclusively on your own conduct, with no consideration of race. Your allegation that I have animus towards ‘white people’ is categorically false.”
Meanwhile, the chief has been effectively demoted, even as her active EEOC complaint works its way through the federal machinery.
Hudson’s attorney, Ed Buckley, calls this retaliation.
Last week, John Pearson, once assistant chief in DeKalb’s police force, was brought into the city. Buckley said the chief was then told Pearson was her new boss.
Pearson, in a statement, says it’s “misinformation” to say Hudson was demoted. He said she’s still the chief, has the same salary and still directs the department.
Pearson said he has a verbal agreement with Qawiy to start Aug. 1 as Director of Police Services. The “department is in a staffing crisis,” he said, and it’s critical to hire officers to be functional.
Speaking of all that, Buckley told me, “They’re the gang that can’t shoot straight.”
A roomful of residents echoed that sentiment Tuesday night at City Hall. “Our police department has been gutted,” said resident Brian Medford. “Our beloved chief is being pushed out.”
Others scolded the council, saying police were being “dehumanized” and the city has become an embarrassment.
Councilman Jamie Carroll called for a raise for police base pay from $52,000 to $60,000, saying, “If we want a police force, we have to pay the market rate.”
That question will be addressed at a later day. In fact, speakers Tuesday were told not to speak about anything other than police pay.
Qawiy was off limits for discussion, a vintage head-in-the-sand moment.
Earlier, former councilman Mark Perkins told me, “This highlights the irresponsibility of (Qawiy) . . .If you’re already at a disadvantage (in hiring officers), then don’t have a knock-down-drag-out with your police chief.”
The situation has deteriorated so badly that Dan Whisenhunt, who runs the news website Decaturish, has called for Qawiy’s ouster in an editorial. He also announced he would not quote her nor the PR firm the city has hired because he says he caught Qawiy in a mistruth. His coverage of Clarkston in recent months has documented slow-motion civic implosion.
Exit interviews of former Clarkston employees shared with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show common themes: “Low morale;” the job “used to be fun;” police are underpaid and are “overworked;” there’s a noticeable “tension between (city manager) and the chief;” “the office feels cold and feels tension in city hall.”
On top of that, Finance Director Dan Defnall last week sent an email — that quickly went public on Decaturish — detailing expenses forwarded to him by Qawiy that hadn’t gone through the proper channels.
Defnall added he has “absolutely no information” about contracts concerning Pearson and other expenditures. “The city staff need some immediate relief from all of the unnecessary stressful work environment that has existed for months now and continues to escalate daily,” he added.
The council ignored this Tuesday.
Councilman Carroll told me that he, too, would like to oust Qawiy but says “the majority of the council refuses to manage the clash by removing the city manager.”
The council is apparently split 3-3 on the issue, with Mayor Beverly Burks being the tie-breaking vote.
Asked what the council will do, Burks told me she had to “mince my words,” due to the EEOC complaint.
“We have to do what’s in the best interest of the community,” she said. “We have to look at the roles of the individuals concerning safety and the perception of the city.”
In our talk, she mentioned “perception” several times.
And if perception is reality, then reality in Clarkston needs an extreme makeover.