As Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams prepares to step down as one of Brookhaven’s founding officials, she’s looking back with pride on the city’s whirlwind first three years. And she’s planning new ways to contribute as a private citizen, from starting a historical society to fundraising for more parks.
“I’m really proud of all the accomplishments we’ve made,” Williams said in a recent interview in the mayor’s office she will vacate when mayor-elect John Ernst is sworn in Jan. 4. “We’ve tried to balance between building the city, taking care of basics and dreaming—dreaming big.”
“Most of it has been fun. Not all of it has been fun,” she said. She recalled the “dark cloud” of the city’s battle against the Pink Pony strip club, and controversy over an employee complaint about former mayor J. Max Davis that Williams called an overblown reaction to “schoolboy” behavior.
“I worked hard to stand on principle…Did we have stumbles? Of course,” said Williams, adding that she is proud of how the city handled its controversies as well.
A retired national reporter for ABC News, Williams was a longtime neighborhood activist when she got involved in the cityhood movement that led to Brookhaven’s 2012 founding. She was elected to the first City Council and was appointed mayor this year when Davis resigned to run for a state representative seat. Williams dropped out of this year’s mayoral race, citing family health concerns.
“Nobody gives you a user’s guide. You don’t know what you don’t know,” Williams said of the steep learning curve in running a new city. She recalled the organizing frenzy that had the new government wandering “like Bedouins” to a temporary City Hall in Dunwoody for a time.
“I think our proudest accomplishment is a police department,” she said, recalling pre-cityhood times when the county had only four or five officers patrolling. On the other hand, she said, “Now I’m kind of surprised at how much crime we do have” as better policing reveals it.
“I think we kept our promise that we’d run the city like a business. I’m really proud of the fact that the anti-city people all said it was going to be ‘Broke-haven,’” yet they have a sizable reserve while continuously rolling back the property tax millage rate, she said. “Our roads are paved. Our potholes are filled.”
City parks are another point of pride, both in long-term planning and quick fix-ups. “My only regret is…I won’t be the one making decisions” on moving the park master plans ahead, Williams said.
But she cited successes like planting 150 cherry trees and establishing the Cherry Blossom Festival, and fixing up neglected facilities like the Lynwood Community Center, where “people thought you needed a typhus shot to go in there. It was where the vampires lived.”
The downside of holding office, Williams said, was receiving “angry” and “coarse” criticism, especially online. “I guess it comes with the territory,” she said. “It’s hurtful. It doesn’t encourage other people to step up and take that kind of smearing.”
If the harshness of criticism took Williams by surprise, so did some of the controversies that triggered it.
“Some things came along, like the Pink Pony, that I didn’t expect to be such a big issue. I look at that as kind of a dark cloud,” Williams said. She found it “shocking” that, unlike in other metro Atlanta city-versus-strip-club battles, many Brookhaven residents supported the Pink Pony.
“If we were to do nothing and five more strip clubs came in, would people be happy?” Williams asked. “So we fought the battle all the way to the state Supreme Court, and we won, and I thought it was great cause for celebration.” She was disappointed the City Council chose to let the club remain for seven years in exchange for an annual payment.
Another controversy came this year when the city withheld an email describing as “sexual harassment” an incident where Davis sprayed an aerosol can near an employee. The incident became an issue in Davis’s unsuccessful state representative campaign and led the state Attorney General to condemn the city for secrecy.
“I take pride [that] when I became mayor I tried to clean up” transparency issues, Williams said. “I faulted our city attorney for giving us bad advice” and then “rounded up the votes” to force him out.
“J. Max did not deserve to be treated like he was in that election,” Williams added. “Those accusations…blew out of proportion a minor incident that was in no way sexual harassment. He acted like a schoolboy on a couple of days. That’s no reason to crucify him.”
In fact, Williams said, she might have continued serving on the council if Davis had remained mayor. As it is, she said, “I wish John Ernst all the best…Sometimes I feel like George Washington [in] his farewell speech. I need to step down so you can move on.”
Looking ahead, Williams is considering forming a Brookhaven historical society, an extension of a local history project she funded with mayoral discretionary funds. A local history book in the “Images of America” series is likely to come out of that effort.
She’s also planning to coordinate private fundraising to sustain the Cherry Blossom Festival and such green space efforts as a plan to beautify the long wall running along the MARTA tracks on Peachtree Road. Ernst’s mother, a master gardener, may assist her with the wall work. “My other little pet project is Flowerland,” said Williams, referring to an ambitious proposal to resurrect a historic, giant flower garden off Chamblee-Dunwoody Road.
In her Dec. 15 farewell to the City Council, “I compared starting the city to birthing a baby,” and how it has gone through its “terrible twos” to become a toddler, Williams said.
“Don’t be surprised if I stick around to watch our child grow.”