Last week’s ruling by a superior court judge that recall efforts against two City of Hoschton officials can proceed was something of a shock. Seldom have judges in the state found “sufficient” reasons to let recall proceedings go forward.
It’s an interesting decision in that it might be morally right, but it also raised some troubling questions.
To recap, Hoschton Mayor Theresa Kenerly and mayor pro tem Jim Cleveland got into hot water in May after Kenerly removed a job application for city administrator because the candidate is black. Cleveland defended Kenerly in a newspaper article where he spouted his views that interracial relationships made his "blood boil."
What Kenerly did and what Cleveland said were terrible. The public demanded they resign, but neither one did. Hence, the recall movement was born.
Both Kenerly and Cleveland challenged the recall, saying there wasn’t sufficient legal grounds for it to continue. That was the subject of last week’s hearing.
But at that point, the issue gets murky.
The judge ruled there are three sufficient reason to recall Kenerly: She removed the job application; she allowed some city projects to be done without a full bidding process; and she didn’t make sure Cleveland, the mayor pro tem, appointed a city ethics board.
Cleveland's case was allowed to go forward because he hadn't created a city ethics board, a duty in the city charter of the mayor pro tem.
What’s troubling about this is that aside from the job application issue against Kenerly, the rest of the allegations are disingenuous. They are a means to an end, but have nothing to do with the issues that sparked the recall.
Let’s be honest here: Nobody cares whether or not Cleveland appointed a city ethics board. His predecessor as mayor pro tem didn’t appoint one, either. In fact, it's not even clear that Cleveland violated the city charter since it seems that he has not been mayor pro tem for 24 months yet, the time in which the charter says a mayor pro tem should appoint members to an ethics board.
And nobody cares about the city projects that were done without a bid. The issues around that are muddy, but there’s apparently no evidence that anything illegal was done, or that city funds were misspent.
So two of the three reasons for the recall effort have zero to do with the real reason, which was what Kenerly and Cleveland said about race.
Perhaps that’s justified as a means to an end, but you have to wonder if it’s totally ethical.
If we recalled all local officials who violated some technical aspect of their jobs, we wouldn’t have any public officials left in office. Every year we see far more troubling decisions from our public officials than what Cleveland is legally, on paper, being recalled for.
Of course, Cleveland brought all of this on by spewing racist garbage that put the recall wheels in motion. On top of that, he didn’t hire a lawyer to represent him at last week’s hearing. The old saying is true: When you represent yourself in court, you have a fool for a client. If he’d had a good lawyer, it’s doubtful that Cleveland’s case would have ended as it did.
Kenerly’s situation is different. The fact that she used race as a basis to not consider someone for a job is clearly illegal. While the other two counts against her are questionable, there’s little doubt what she did with the job application was a violation of her oath of office.
And yet, there is reason to think that if Cleveland hasn’t gone off on his racist tirade in the media — essentially throwing fuel on the fire — Kenerly wouldn’t be facing recall. Her actions were not national news until Cleveland became the poster child of a racist-old-white-man. He elevated and amplified Kenerly's situation.
In addition, much of the animosity against Kenerly predates the racial issues in May. She was already on the hot seat with some in the town over rezoning controversies. For many in Hoschton, the recall is a move to slap her over those issues just as much as it is about the job application issue.
The recall movement withdrew its charge against Cleveland based on what he had said. However vile, it’s not illegal to say stupid stuff. If that were the case, Washington D.C. would be empty.
Another troubling aspect to last week's hearing was the debate over what officials could say about their closed council meetings. There has long been an impression in Hoschton that council members would violate some law if they discussed what had been said in a closed "executive session."
That's not true. There is no law against a public official revealing what was said during a closed meeting. Somehow, that issue was also debated in court with no real resolution.
Today, we have an odd situation. Assuming the recall moves forward and an election is held, Kenerly might be recalled for her actions both before and after the racial issue while Cleveland might be recalled for his words. Nobody is going to vote to remove Cleveland because he didn’t create a city ethics board; nobody cares about that. They care that he embarrassed the city by being Archie Bunker of 2019.
Making the Hoschton situation even more interesting is that the recall is playing out against the backdrop national conversation over impeaching the president.
While different in particulars, both instances beg the question: When is it appropriate to remove a public official from office outside of a regular election?
That is the issue that will soon confront voters in Hoschton. There's little doubt that both Kenerly and Cleveland will be recalled. People in Hoschton are upset at the entire mess.
Perhaps they both deserve to get the boot. They did screw up, Kenerly with an action and Cleveland with his words.
But one has to be a little troubled that at least part of the process of getting the two recalled is screwed up, too.
Perhaps state law should be changed so that citizens can recall a local official without having to outline specific reasons. At least that would be more honest that having to trump up a reason that seems to be spurious.