Recap of a decade in politics in the City of Stockbridge
By Monroe Roark
One of Stockbridge mayor Judy Neal’s top stated priorities while in office is to move the city forward in the wake of considerable negativity, both in the Atlanta media and public opinion, in recent years. With that in mind, here is a partial history of the past decade in Henry County’s largest city.
Lee Stuart was elected mayor in the fall of 2009, defeating the late Rudy Kelley who was the city’s top elected office for nearly three decades. Kelley’s final term in office was highlighted by a contentious eminent domain dispute with a local business that received national press coverage.
Stuart’s three years in office included numerous charges by city employees of a hostile working environment and a legal battle between the mayor and the council regarding his authority. During a mediation session related to that case Stuart was alleged to have secretly recorded the proceedings, for which he pled no contest in December of 2012 to a charge of unprofessional conduct by a public officer and had to leave office.
Mark Alarcon, then a sitting council member, was appointed by his peers to serve the last year of Stuart’s term. During that time the city’s Downtown Development Authority reappeared after many years an active player on the economic development scene. Alarcon led an initiative under which the city would have formed its own police department, a move that was cheered by some citizens and lambasted by others.
Alarcon’s bid for a full term as mayor was denied when he was soundly defeated by Tim Thompson in the 2013 fall election. During the transition period there was uncertainty regarding when Thompson and two new council members were actually sworn in, and Alarcon called a Dec. 30 special meeting to pass several items which were later reversed by the new administration.
Thompson’s term began with the removal of city clerk Rhonda Blackmon in the middle of the first meeting. Blackmon later sued the city and ultimately received a reported $150,000 settlement. At least two other city employees filed legal action for alleged wrongful termination during the first few months of 2014.
The city waged a lengthy legal battle against the Downtown Development Authority beginning in early 2014, after the council determined that the authority had not been properly constituted and did not legally exist. It was because of the DDA that Thompson and the council attempted to remove two of their colleagues from office. Richard Steinberg chose to resign rather than face an expensive legal fight, while Robin Buschman (a DDA member and council member simultaneously) ultimately emerged unscathed from an investigation into her actions and chose not to run for re-election. The other council members during this time included Anthony Ford and LaKeisha Gantt, both elected at the same time as Thompson, along with Alphonso Thomas who won his seat in 2011.
Perhaps the two most public incidents relating to Thompson’s time in office were related to allegations about his own behavior. A heated executive session led to the release of a City Hall recording that showed Thompson screaming at council members, resulting in public statements from Gantt and Thomas about their personal safety and a vote to censure Thompson for his actions. A similar incident involving city clerk Vanessa Holiday allegedly took place in the days just before Thompson resigned, and it appeared there would be another investigation before he abruptly left office.
It appeared for a short time that the council would appoint Thompson’s successor for the last two years of his term, but that idea was soundly criticized, especially by three new incoming council members who had just been elected: Elton Alexander, John Blount and Neat Robinson.
The new council named Ford its mayor pro tem at the beginning of 2016 and fast-tracked local legislation that would allow a special election. That election began with several candidates and ended with Neal defeating former council member Regina Lewis-Ward in the recent runoff.