OPINION: Lawsuit hits home hard for Brookhaven mayor

Credit: City of Brookhaven

Credit: City of Brookhaven

It’s been said all politics is local. This adage really hit home this week for Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst and City Manager Christian Sigman. I mean, really hit home —their family homes were in danger of being plucked away by a jury in a real estate zoning lawsuit.

Last week, a DeKalb County jury socked it to the city of Brookhaven for more than $6 million in damages and lawyers fees for actions officials took in scuttling the redevelopment of a small neighborhood off Buford Highway.

On Monday, the jury returned to court to determine what level of punitive damages should be leveled against the two officials. The developer, called Ardent, had accused the city of competing with them over properties the firm had already assembled to build 226 new townhomes. Ardent’s lawyer, Simon Bloom, had argued the city wanted land for a police station and then inflated the cost of a dead-end road to $3 million as sort of a municipal kickback.

Ultimately, the city voted not to turn the street over to the developers, killing the project.

“They hold all the cards; they have all the power,” Bloom told the jurors. “If they don’t do their jobs, it’s really expensive to sue City Hall. It’s so hard to hold them accountable.”

It is rare that a city or county loses a zoning case or is hit for big-time damages, including paying the $541,000 in the developer’s legal fees that were awarded here. And it is unheard of for elected officials or government employees to be held personally liable in such cases. None of the real estate lawyers or politicos I spoke with had ever heard of such a thing. It is uncertain how much insurance will pay and how much the city will have to chip in. The decision will, no doubt, be appealed.

Bloom wasn’t shy about the scope of his victory: He asked jurors to punish the two officials to the tune of couple million dollars each.

While on the witness stand, Ernst was asked by the city’s lawyer, Ted Meeker, if he could pay a settlement.

“Not the full amount,” the mayor responded. “This (lawsuit) is against me personally. When you ask about my house and the mortgage there still is, well, that means to take my house and sell my house.”

Both Ernst and Sigman, who seemed shell-shocked they had come to this point, choked up on the stand as they spoke about their careers, their family, health issues, home equity and their life savings.

“Don’t punish me, my wife or my sons,” Sigman implored the jury.

Ernst, an attorney and former head of DeKalb’s ethics board, noted he had an 8-year-old Nissan Leaf and spent countless hours on his $16,000-a-year mayoral job to the detriment of his lawyering gig. He said the decision “will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

Asked about his reason for getting involved in politics, the two-term mayor said, “Trying to make things better, plain and simple. In local government, that’s where the differences can be made.”

He talked about improving parks, building a walkway and trying to help with climate change by getting the first electric police car in the Southeast.

Both he and Sigman were elusive in their job responsibilities. Said the mayor, “I follow the advice of city staff.” Said Sigman, “As city manager, I don’t make decisions; that’s the city’s elected officials. I follow their lead.”

Ernst is not corrupt or venal. He’s a policy wonk and I think he was being honest when he said he’s trying to make things better. But there is an undercurrent of insufferable high-handedness about those who run Brookhaven, an assured feeling that they know better.

The north-central DeKalb city was created a decade ago, with boundaries that swooped down to Buford Highway — which really had nothing to do with the traditional neighborhood that was Brookhaven. Then the new city immediately went about gentrifying that thoroughfare and chasing away the Pink Pony nudie club and squeezing out affordable housing.

The jury skipped lunch and didn’t spend much time deliberating on how to punish the two, coming back to hit them each with a $200,000 price tag for punitive damages. It was a compromise verdict. Big enough to hurt, not large enough to ruin them.

A juror on the way to the elevator after the trial concluded told me, “I hope this sends a message.” However, the fellow was hungry and didn’t want to stick around to tell me what message that should be.

Part of the ruling, I think, is that government and pols are held in low regard these days. The jury just wanted to stick it to somebody.

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

“Politicians, especially in these affluent towns have a messiah complex,” Bloom told me. “They think they’re saving everybody.”

Bill Floyd, who was the mayor of Decatur for 16 years, thinks a decision like this is going to put local officials in a shell when it comes to doing their jobs. He said government officials and developers have “tough conversations every day” about issues like building sidewalks, the number of residential units or types of businesses allowed, the effect on sewer systems, the placement of buildings near streets.

“This is really scary; it’ll drastically change the way cities can do business if you’re worried about punitive damages,” Floyd said. “It will change the way cities and counties look at every development going on. There will be no negotiations.”

Messiahs would be a dying breed.