The Battle Over South Fulton's City Attorney
Councilman khalid called the sudden rush to enact H.B. 921 while its financial impact and constitutionality are unknown "legally and financially wreckless."
He also warned that any steps taken to move forward with H.B. 921 could make the City legally and financially culpable in the lawsuit against the Mayor; and challenged the City Council to hire an independent attorney to look out for the City's best interests while the Mayor and City Attorney fought each other in court.
khalid calls this latest Council fight another act of financial irresponsibility, citing reports that an in-house legal apartment could cost taxpayers an additional $500,000 on top of what the City is already paying attorneys. Emilia Walker, a South Fulton resident, is a Senior Partner with Fincher-Denmark, which has seven attorneys and three paralegals assigned to handle to city's legal matters.
House Bill 921 alters South Fulton's City Charter (the city's "constitution") requiring the City to create an in-house legal department (lines 39-41). It also gives the Mayor the power to appoint a City Attorney without requiring a confirmation vote by City Council (19-21) and set the City Attorney's salary (line 38). The bill also empowers the Mayor to remove the City Attorney without a vote of the Council (line 22).
Origins of the Fight
Walker's lawsuit traces its origins to a little-known 2018 dispute with the Mayor over legal advice. However, their private disagreements became very public during the Mayor & Councilwoman Willis' Removal Hearings last December.
In October 2019, City Council voted 5-2 to investigate whether Mayor Edwards & Councilwoman Willis colluded with City Economic Development Director Christopher Pike to steer development deals away from the South Fulton's City Development Authority to Fulton County's Development Authority. According to the city's Financial Planner Ed Wall, redirecting development deals from the City to the County may have cost the city as much as $7 million.
The Mayor attempted to stop the investigation and veto Walker's contract as City Attorney, both of which were approved by a supermajority of City Council. Walker, who in addition to being the City Attorney also serves as the City Council's Parliamentarian, ruled the Mayor's vetos were invalid. City Council overruled the Mayor's Veto of the City Attorney's contract 5-to-2 (with Rowell & Willis voting No).
Many South Fulton residents have questioned H.B. 921 (and companion H.B. 1019)'s changes to the City Charter. This November Georgians statewide voted to lift the state's sovereign immunity protections, allowing them to challenge such laws in court. Attorney Walker filed suit within days of the November 2020 election was certified by the Secretary of State.
Councilman khalid has argued that H.B. 921 cannot be used fire Attorney Walker because it violates Article 1, Paragraph X of the State Constitution, which prohibits retroactive laws — meaning a law could not be created to fire someone who has already been hired.
Council Fights About Moving Forward Even as Issue Heads to Court
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SOUTH FULTON 101
Established in 2017, Atlanta’s new twin city — South Fulton, GA — is 100 square miles with 100,000 residents and a $100 million budget. South Fulton’s African-American population is 89.7 percent, making it Blackest Big City in America. This new, international Black mecca boasts an average median income higher than Atlanta or Chicago.
Learn more about the new City of South Fulton at our 101 page.
Key Players in the attempt to remove the City Attorney
More info coming soon.
Timeline of Events
The Mayor's Veto
In December 2019, Mayor Edwards attempted to veto a Contract between the City Council and the City Attorney, and Resolution written by City Council calling for an Investigation about a real estate development deal. After examining the Mayor's veto, the City Attorney found that the Mayor's attempted vetos exceeding his veto powers detailed in our City Charter.
City Council voted to declare his vetos invalid. Because South Fulton's Mayor does not have the power to veto Resolutions or votes of Council, many of Mayor Edwards' previous vetos have not been called into question.
Every level of government in the United States — federal, state, county, city/town — has 3 branches of government: the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, and the Judicial Branch. The Executive and Legislative branches can both make laws, and the Judicial Branch makes the final decision on how those laws can be applied.
In city government, the Mayor makes up the Executive Branch. Like a Governor or President, the Mayor is elected by all the people. In city government, the Legislative branch is the City Council. As in Congress or the State Legislature, City Councilpersons often represent sections of the population, which are broken down into City Council Districts or Wards. This allows citizens to have a representative in government who lives in their community.
As part of our American system of checks & balances, the Executive branch (the Mayor, Governor or President) is often given the power to veto legislation passed by the Legislative branch (City Council, State Legislature or Congress). As a second check & balance, the Legislative branch can overturn a Mayor or President's veto if enough of them vote to do so.
What a Governor or Mayor can veto — and the process to overturn their vetos — are defined by State of City's Constitution. The Constitution of city is called the City Charter. The powers of a Mayor, including their veto power, can vary widely from city to city. As shown in the picture of above, the veto powers of the Mayor of South Fulton are listed in Section 3.21 of the City Charter.
In the City of South Fulton, the Mayor only has the power to veto a City Ordinance (a law which changes the Municipal/City Code of Ordinances) or an Item of Appropriation (a defined amount of money set aside for a specific purpose). In South Fulton, the Mayor cannot veto a City Council Vote (decision). While the Mayor can veto an Item of Appropriation in a Resolution (an action or statement of belief which does not change the Code of Ordinances) s/he cannot veto an entire Resolution or any other part of a Resolution outside of an Item of Appropriation. The Mayor also cannot veto a Contract made between the City Council and another party.
At a recent public forum State Representative Roger Bruce, who helped write South Fulton's City Charter, stated that the current wording of the Charter does not convey his "legislative intent." "South Fulton's Charter was largely a copy-and-paste job," said one former legislator, who notes most of the language of the City's Charter was lifted from Sandy Springs' 2006 City Charter.