After a series of public embarrassments, Brookhaven city officials are looking for ways to restore public confidence in the city.
“My job right now is to right the ship, to make a course correction,” new Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams said at the start of a special council meeting called June 19 to hire the new city attorney. “We’ve had some stumbles. Some mistakes were made. … We have to learn from the mistakes and move forward.
“It’s been a hard week.”
Indeed, much happened over the course of the new mayor’s first days in office. So much that within a week, the city had a new attorney, the mayor was promising to hold fewer closed-door council meetings, the council was considering the public release of documents from previous closed-door meetings, and the council had approved a new document disclosure rule that one member approvingly said went far beyond the requirements of existing state law.
Williams had been elected by her fellow councilors June 9 to succeed the city’s inaugural mayor, J. Max Davis, after he resigned to run for a seat in the state House of Representatives.
Then, on June 15, news media reports said the city withheld information in the release earlier in the year related to a complaint against Davis.
On May 13, a city spokeswoman had confirmed to reporters that a sexual harassment complaint had been made over incident involving Davis and a city employee. The employee claimed the then-mayor had sprayed her with an aerosol.
Davis apologized publicly to two employees who were present during the incident and said “the action was innocent and was not intended to bring discomfort.” City Attorney Tom Kurrie was quoted in a city press release as denying an investigation of sexual harassment was being conducted and saying as no claim of sexual harassment had been made against Davis.
But on June 15, ajc.com and The Brookhaven Post published newly released memoranda from Davis and City Manager Marie Garrett that revealed more information about the incident, including an statement by Garrett that “I believe that the mayor took a liberty and crossed the line doing something I consider to be sexual harassment.”
The next night, June 16, Kurrie resigned. “It was clear the majority of council was quite unhappy and dismayed at his handling of recent open records cases,” Williams said after announcing his resignation.
Kurrie released a statement saying his resignation was to take effect June 19 at the end of the business day. That, he said, would “enable an orderly transition of our work in process.”
“It goes against my nature to resign from any position, even with the difficulties that ensue in representing local governments because of the ever-changing political environment,” Kurrie said in his statement. “However, it became clear to me that I did not have the support of the new mayor and the newest council members.
“I do want to state that I am proud of the service I provided to the citizens of Brookhaven, and I do not believe I have done anything to violate their trust.”
Later, in an interview, Kurrie called his departure “collateral damage” that resulted from “a stupid event.” “It’ll have a lasting effect on my practice,” he said.
The council met again the morning of June 19 to name a new city attorney. Williams appointed Atlanta lawyer Christopher D. Balch. Balch had been recommended to her by the counsel for the Georgia Municipal Association and other lawyers. “I think he has the sturdy moral compass to help us restore [confidence] in our city,” she said.
But Balch’s appointment did not go smoothly.
Two members of the council — Bates Mattison and John Park — said they were concerned that the interim appointment had no fixed end point. Mattison said the city’s first “interim” city attorney had held the job for about two years. Mattison also said the council should take more time to consider the appointment.
“We created a crisis here in which we forced the resignation of [Kurrie] …,” Mattison said. “I’d like for us to really deliberate on whom our interim city attorney is. It’s not good policy to move so quickly on the appointment of the interim city attorney. …All I’m arguing for is, let’s be deliberate. We created a crisis that caused us to be here. Let’s not do it again.”
But newly elected Councilwoman Linley Jones, chosen by the council to fill Williams’ term in District 1, welcomed the new attorney. “He’s a rare find,” Jones said. “We are lucky to find him. I believe Mr. Balch has a strong foundation in ethics and that has been shown throughout his legal career.”
When the council split 2-2 on approving the appointment, Williams had to break the tie herself, casting a rare vote as mayor to hire Balch.
Once Balch was hired and took his seat before the council, council members immediately began seeking advice.
One question involved whether the council had not followed proper procedures when Williams was elected mayor on June 9. Balch said he thought the procedure was acceptable, but the council asked him to report by the July 7 council meeting on what options the council had, including a repeat of the election and a re-vote on all actions taken since. Council members also wanted to seek an opinion from the Georgia Attorney General’s office.
“We want this issue buttoned up,” Williams said. “We don’t want any questions.”
Council members also asked Balch to report next month on whether they could release minutes from closed-door meetings the council had held earlier in the year.
“I believe at this point in Brookhaven, we should be looking for reasons to release and not reasons to withhold,” Councilman John Park said. “What I’m hearing from the public is, ‘What else is there? What else do we not know?’”