The City of Hoschton is quickly becoming the poster child of Southern racism following comments from the town’s mayor and mayor pro tem.
Hoschton had been on a roll over the past couple of years. A high-end residential project announced plans for a new 2,600-home community in the town, a move that could, in the coming decade, pull tiny Hoschton out of the shadow of its larger neighbor, Braselton. Town leaders appeared to recognize that they needed to up their game. Over the last year, they had taken steps toward that end. They hired a city administrator and the city government functions slowly began to migrate away from the old “aw shucks” informal way of doing things toward a more professional town administration.
There were controversies. A developer wanted to build four large warehouses on property that abuts the city, a situation that left the city at the mercy of other governments over the rezoning for that proposed project. Still, some citizens in Hoschton thought city leaders could have been more aggressive in opposing that project.
For now, that project is dead, but the outgrowth of the controversy left city leaders bruised and critics using social media to bash city officials on a personal basis. The town had become divided despite — or maybe because of — the more professional tone coming from city hall.
Still, one could view all of that as growing pains, just part of the process any small town goes through when faced with growth.
But earlier this year, Hoschton’s city administrator abruptly quit. That left a void which officials scrambled to deal with.
It was in the process of searching for a new city administrator that the current problems began.
Following a March 4 meeting where the council discussed the top applicants for the opening, Mayor Theresa Kenerly allegedly told council member Hope Weeks that one of four top candidates for city administrator was a good applicant, but that he was black and she didn’t think the mostly-white community was ready for a black city administrator.
Considering race in hiring is, of course, illegal. This week, Kenerly denied having said what Weeks reported and gave a different story about the conversation (see the news article in this week’s edition.)
Whatever was said, Weeks was reportedly taken aback by the comments and discussed it with fellow council member Susan Powers. The two subsequently took their concerns to the city’s attorney.
Out of that, Kenerly was reportedly sanctioned by the council — she could attend the closed-door interviews with candidates for the administrator’s position, but couldn’t participate in the discussion. (A new administrator has since been hired.)
Someone apparently heard about the issue and tipped off the AJC, which made an open records request for emails and did a story in Monday’s edition about Kenerly’s alleged racially-biased comments.
But it gets worse.
In Monday’s AJC article about Kenerly’s comments, councilman and mayor pro tem Jim Cleveland all but endorsed racism.
“I don’t know how they (the town’s citizens) would take it if we selected a black administrator. She might have been right,” he told the AJC.
Then he went further with comments that painted Hoschton as a backwards, redneck town that hasn’t come into the 21st Century.
“I’m a Christian and my Christian beliefs are you don’t do interracial marriage,” he said to the AJC. “That’s the way I was brought up and that’s the way I believe. I have black friends, I hired black people. But when it comes to all this stuff you see on TV, when you see blacks and whites together, it makes my blood boil because that’s just not the way a Christian is supposed to live.”
Cleveland’s comment was from the South of 1959, not 2019. It echoes a time when the bible was used to justify slavery and when “Christians” were opposed to school integration because they didn’t want black and white children in the same classroom.
It’s clear that Kenerly and Cleveland have embarrassed the town they profess to care about. Their comments played directly into the stereotype of a small, Southern redneck town where racist attitudes are stuck in the 1950s.
There’s no way Kenerly or Cleveland can overcome their own words. They have poisoned the well for all future city hiring — nobody can be sure that race isn’t a part of the city’s employment decisions following their comments.
That creates a huge legal liability for the city as long as Kenerly and Cleveland are on the city council. Look at what happened 13 years ago when a member of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners used the “N” word about the county manager, who at the time was black. The BOC later fired the manager and eventually had to settle for $350,000 to avoid a lawsuit over racial discrimination. Even if the BOC had a legitimate reason to fire him, the commissioner’s “N” word comments had poisoned the atmosphere so much that the county faced serious legal liability.
That’s what Hoschton is facing now. No matter how Kenerly broached the subject of race during the search for a city administrator, bringing it up at all was wrong.
And Cleveland’s comments are so deeply offensive — hiding behind a veil of being a “Christian” to espouse racist views — that he can no longer be taken seriously on any matter coming before the Hoschton City Council. If his judgment is so poor on this matter, how can citizens ever trust him on other city issues?
What Kenerly and Cleveland said was wrong. Period.
Both need to resign from the council so the city can clear the air and move forward.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.