Georgia mayor, councilor told to resign amid racial strife

HOSCHTON, Ga. (AP) — The mayor and a council member in a mostly white north Georgia city are facing calls to resign over racially charged comments.

At issue is how Mayor Theresa Kenerly treated a black candidate for the city administrator job in Hoschton.

In documents released by the city, Councilwoman Hope Weeks wrote that the mayor told her Keith Henry was a good candidate “but he was black and we don’t have a big black population and she just didn’t think Hoschton was ready for that.”

Initially, Kenerly would not answer questions about her reported comments, saying she could not publicly talk about matters that occurred in executive session even though the law does not forbid that. Later, she issued a statement disputing accounts from other city officials, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported .

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“I do not recall making the statement attributed to me regarding any applicant for the City Administrator position, and I deny that I made any statement that suggest (sic) prejudice,” she said.

The AJC’s investigation into the controversy revealed not only a deeply flawed hiring process, but also hard racial attitudes inside Hoschton’s government. All of this occurs as the city of fewer than 2,000 people just outside Gwinnett County is poised for dramatic growth with the construction of thousands of new homes.

Henry said he was interviewed by Kenerly over the phone and did not detect bias on her part. But as a black man applying for executive government positions in small Southern towns, he said he is not shocked if there was.

“It comes with the territory,” he said. “If you live in America as a minority you can’t be naïve that it is the reality that you face.”

At a tense city council meeting Monday, Councilwoman Susan Powers called for resignations of the mayor and Councilman Jim Cleveland, who earlier told the newspaper that he abhors interracial marriage because he’s a Christian.

Cleveland defended the mayor, while confirming many aspects of the story, including that she made a tearful apology in another executive session on March 12. According to accounts from council members, Kenerly said she was “looking out” for Henry because the city does not have a lot of minority residents.

“I was there for that,” Cleveland said. “She cried. She had tears in her eyes. It was in my opinion a very sincere apology.”

Powers said she was unimpressed with the apology. “It was, ‘I’m sorry if I caused you guys trouble,'” she said. “She was apologizing to the council. To me, she shouldn’t be apologizing to us, but to the person she harmed and to the city.”

The AJC asked Kenerly why she apologized and removed herself from the search for a new administrator if she did not make the comments, as she said in her statement to the newspaper. She did not respond to those questions.

According to a series of emails obtained by the AJC, a deal was made between Mitchell and the city’s five elected officials to continue the hiring process that allowed Kenerly to attend, but not participate, in the interviews.

Cleveland said he did not think Kenerly was necessarily wrong regarding her comments about Henry.

“I understood where she was coming from,” he said. “I understand Theresa saying that, simply because we’re not Atlanta. Things are different here than they are 50 miles down the road.”

Hoschton sits just across the Gwinnett County line in Jackson County, adjacent to the larger city of Braselton. Nearly 90 percent of its residents identify as white.

Downtown Hoschton occupies about two city blocks, but it is ringed with new, partially built subdivisions. In February, Florida-based Kolter Homes announced it had closed on 1,422 acres of land south of Hoschton on which it plans to build a high-end senior citizen community with 2,600 homes.

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Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, http://www.ajc.com

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