This time last December, we said the City of Hoschton was the most improved local government of 2018.

How much has changed in a year. Since 2018, Hoschton's leadership has unraveled and its government has run off the road into a ditch.

Those were self-inflicted wounds stemming from a combination of ignorance, intolerance and a large dose of Machiavellian political manipulation.

There are no winners and losers in Hoschton's political mess — and the blame was not as simple as it might have appeared to those who casually kept up with the events there.

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Hoschton's political leadership has never been particularly progressive. It didn't need to be given the sleepy nature of the small town where the government didn't do very much, nor did it need to. The town, which doesn't have a city property tax, never had much money so there wasn't much to fight over. At one point, the town's finances got so bad it had to disband its police department, which was consuming a large number of dollars the city simply didn't have.

But for the most part, the town's government has traditionally been one part social club, one part public servant. That was pretty evident a few years ago when the town's most pressing issue was to see how many scarecrows it could build in an effort to set a world record.

Small town, indeed. With just a few hundred people, everyone knows everyone else in town — many people are related.

But there are no more bitter fights than those within a family and Hoschton's "family" dynamics became vitriolic in the extreme during 2019, even as newcomers have begun to replace the old-timers in town.

In a way, Hoschton is like a small New England town where local government is done through community meetings, a nod to direct democracy over representative government.

Hoschton citizens have long blurred the lines at public meetings between the elected and the "people." Many small towns have a gadfly or two who slap at city officials; in Hoschton, it sometimes seems like half the town's population are gadflys.

But over the past year or two, that kind of "people's democracy" crossed a line and has become  intensely acrimonious with numerous verbal confrontations between elected officials and the public. It's gotten ugly.

That's been coming for a long time. A couple of decades ago, I moderated a town political forum in Hoschton where one woman brought in a bucket of raw sewerage she'd scooped out of her front yard to show town council candidates just how bad her subdivision's faulty sewerage system had become. I was standing close by when she came to the podium to speak her mind, the bucket of sewerage sloshing close to me as she railed about the problem, demanding action from the candidates.

The irony of that is it was just this past year that old sewerage problem got special state funding to be fixed, a fix done by an administration which by the end of 2019, had itself soiled the town's reputation with its own sewer-worthy comments.

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What people will remember about Hoschton in 2019 is that the mayor injected race into a hiring discussion by the council and that exploded into a recall effort. Exactly who said what to whom — and what was really done — remains a blur. There's not doubt, however, that the issue of race entered the discussion over hiring a city administrator. No matter how you slice it, that's illegal.

Putting fuel on the fire was the mayor pro tem, who expounded about his own intolerant views about mixed-race couples. At one point, he said seeing mixed-race couples made his "blood boil."

All of that led to a firestorm which was splashed across the country. Hoschton became a national poster child for racial intolerance — a small, Southern town caught in a time-warp, circa 1954. State and national media, including multiple television stations, made Hoschton a story de rigueur about racial relations in the nation.

When calls for the mayor and mayor pro tem to resign didn't happen, a recall movement began. Against some pretty stiff legal odds, the recall was allowed to move forward by the courts.

But late in the year, before the slated Jan. 14, 2020 recall vote could be held, both officials resigned.

The result might have been emotionally satisfying for some in the community, but it left the town's government without any experienced hands on deck at a time when the city is facing some critical decisions about the future.

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But let's back up. The turmoil in Hoschton hasn't been just about racial intolerance. The actions by Mayor Theresa Kenerly and the words from mayor pro tem Jim Cleveland were just gasoline tossed onto a fire that was already burning.

Long before the racial incidents, Kenerly had come under intense public criticism over how she was perceived to have dealt with a controversial proposal for a warehouse near the town.

In 2018, a developer attempted to have an historic old farm rezoned for several warehouses. That site, known as the Pirkle property, wasn't inside the City of Hoschton, but it does abut the town's limits and a major subdivision in the community.

The developer attempted to have the county government rezone the property. When that failed, he attempted to have the Town of Braselton annex the property and rezone it. That also failed.

While Hoschton wasn't directly involved in the rezoning efforts, citizens in the town became hyper-concerned about what might happen if the property were developed for warehouses. The focus fell on Mayor Kenerly, who was attacked verbally in multiple public meetings for what critics said was her weak opposition to the proposed development. She did oppose the development on the record, but that didn't satisfy many of her critics who both in public meetings and on social media, hounded her about the issue.

Muddying the water even more was the idea from Kenerly, along with some other members of the city council, that perhaps Hoschton should itself annex the property so it could control what was built on it rather than wait to see what the county or Braselton eventually approved.

But critics pounced, accusing Kenerly of having "secret" negotiations with the developers. The mayor said she, along with other city officials, had met with the developers, but only for information and that she did not engage in any "negotiations."

Throughout 2018, the Pirkle property controversy ginned-up political rhetoric in Hoschton. Social media rumors and accusations were responsible for much of the heat that would boil up during the citizens' comment time at council meetings.

By December 2018, the warehouse issue was legally at a dead end — the developer had run out of options for the time being — but the anti-Kenerly rhetoric was very much alive.

Kenerly said she got an ugly email Christmas morning 2018 from one of her most vocal critics. Soon after, at the January 2019 council meeting, Kenerly fired back at her critics during a contentious council meeting, giving a lengthy speech about the situation with the Pirkle property and defending her own tenure as mayor from what she said had been ugly Facebook postings.

"I'm a good person and I don't care what she (a Facebook critic) thinks, or anybody else thinks — I work my hiney off for this city and I'm very proud of this city and I'm very proud to be your mayor."

The next month, former city council member Tracy Jordan called on citizens in the town to "stop the back-stabbing."

"It's really easy to get on social media and be really brave and talk bad things about people when you really don't have the facts," she said at one council meeting.

But the die had been cast and Hoschton was split into two warring tribes — those who supported Kenerly and those who wanted to see her booted from office.

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It was in that hot-house atmosphere that the racial accusations and comments hit, giving Kenerly's critics something around which to rally support for her removal from office.

People who previously didn't care about the zoning issue did care about accusations that the town's mayor had racially profiled a job candidate. Council meetings became packed with people watching, sometimes goading, what quickly became a circus. Law enforcement had to be posted at every meeting in case emotions got out of hand.

By the November city elections, it was clear that Kenerly and Cleveland would eventually be recalled. That anger came through in the fall as the elections for two council seats loomed. One council member, Susan Powers, didn't run for re-election. But incumbent Mindi Kiewert did, along with two new candidates who ran as a team to fill both seats.

It was this situation that perhaps became the most troublesome in Hoschton. Kiewert had stayed out of the racial controversy, not commenting about it to the media and avoiding comments at public meetings. She simply didn't take sides.

That infuriated Kenerly's critics, who wanted Kiewert to join their chorus of anti-Kenerly denunciations. When she didn't, the public turned on her with ugly, personal comments at public meetings and on social media.

For the anti-Kenerly crowd, the end seemed to justify the means. Kiewert became a proxy for Kenerly and she was roundly flogged.

To nobody's surprise, Kiewert was defeated. On her way out the door, she gave a speech at her final public meeting, warning the public to be careful how they attacked public officials in the town with hurtful comments.

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As 2020 rolls around, Hoschton is struggling to right its government ship.

While Kenerly's critics won the day, it was perhaps something of a pyrrhic victory.

The resignations of Kenerly and Cleveland, along with the defeat of Kiewert, left the town with just one experienced council member. Hope Weeks was elected in 2018 to her council seat, making her the senior member on the council.

She was joined in November by two political newcomers, Shantwon Astin and Adam Ledbetter who had ousted Kiewert.

The Kenerly-Cleveland resignations also left the council unable to transact business until last week when a judge's order allowed the town to operate with a three-member council.

But getting rid of Kenerly and Cleveland wasn't enough for the new council members. Astin, Ledbetter and Weeks quickly voted to fire the city's administrator and did so in a way that would deny him his separation pay. (Their move overruled Kenerly's action to allow him to resign and keep his severance.)

It's apparent that the trio intends to clean house in Hoschton and to do so with a measure of retribution toward those they believe were too close to Kenerly. Last week, they ditched the town's long-time engineering firm.

But this loss of institutional knowledge could handicap the town as it faces some big challenges in 2020. The massive Kolter development is about to come online in the town and with a weakened city administration and few people with background knowledge, that project is likely to get very little oversight. There has already been some controversy about how much of a free hand the city has given Kolter to develop a huge amount of land in the city.

And this political housecleaning could kneecap future political leadership in the town. Who in their right mind would want to run for mayor and a seat on this fractured council? What professional city administrator would want to apply for a job under this council after it put a knife into the previous administrator?

Hoschton needs healing and unity, not further polarization from a council bent on revenge.

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Being a bomb-throwing critic of government is easy. The verbal Molotov cocktails that were tossed by citizens over the last two years in Hoschton were pretty simple to construct. Kenerly and Cleveland really can't blame anyone else for the firestorm they created and the opening they gave their critics to slap them.

There is a difference, however, between being a critic from the outside and governing from the inside. The latter is much more difficult than the former. And for all their faults and racial intolerance, Kenerly and Cleveland did a pretty good job with city policies and in moving the small town forward in recent years.

For the most part, local government work is boring. It's laying water lines. It's paving roads and filling potholes. It's dealing with building codes and state mandates. It's trying to figure out rezoning applications.

For small town elected officials, it's answering phone calls when people don't get their garbage picked up on time, or hearing them complain about their neighbor's dog barking.

Over most of the last year, Hoschton has been in a bubble, surrounded by media and intense scrutiny.

But now, the bright lights of the television cameras have faded and the city will soon return to being just another small town with all the usual problems. It's 15 minutes of fame is over.

In the end, Kenerly's critics got what they wanted. They have slain the dragons and ousted their enemy.

But that leaves those same critics with nobody else to blame when things go wrong, or don't get done on time, or when there is a screw-up.

Hoschton's leadership has changed, but in the process, it's political culture dove into a muddy ditch.

Time will tell if those who have inherited this turmoil will rise to the occasion, or if they, too, will get caught in the grinding vortex of small town politics which eats its own for sport.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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