What is going on in Johns Creek?

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I wrote this column over the weekend before council met Monday night. In the original column I speculated that the council would indeed release the results of their investigation although I said that I hoped that they would wait until after the election. Had they waited it would have removed most of the shadow of doubt concerning the timing having it come out immediately before the election in which the Mayor is running for reelection against former council person and Mayor Pro Tem Bev Miller.

I also speculated that when the results came out there would be no black and white concrete “smoking guns” and therefor there would be no real “closure.” It seems like I was fairly close in my speculation. The report addressed three primary issues: Communication with Mayor Jere Wood regarding a traffic light at Brumbelow Road; a negotiated personal residential lease made by Bodker with an owner who had business with the city; and an issue involving a pending land sale between the city and an owner in which Bodker was accused of involvement outside of his scope of authority. More details of these three issues are covered in Hatcher Hurd’s article on page four in this issue. The bottom line is that all three of these issues are subject to interpretation and may or may not be actionable by an agency of the state. Only time will tell. The election may very well be way off in the distance in our rear-view mirrors before we know the answers to those questions I suspect. And that is very unfortunate for everyone.

We have been covering local city government now for more than 23 years. We have experience in reporting and analyzing controversies that can arise in local government. The current mess – and it is a very big mess – in Johns Creek is controversial and confusing, and up to this point, there has been very little concrete information available.

If that wasn’t bad enough, there is now an additional controversy involving City Manager John Kachmar, who has been called to resign by both Mayor Bodker and Councilwoman Kelly Stewart.

So what is actually going on? I’ll do the best I can to walk you through the situation as I understand it.

When the city of Johns Creek was created – largely through Mayor Bodker’s efforts – a “strong mayor” position was created, which gives the mayor a wider range of responsibility and power. All other cities in North Atlanta currently have “weak mayor” systems, which give more authority and scope to the city council and to a degree the city manager. Over time, the Johns Creek City Council amended the city charter to convert to a weak mayor system. That has had a significant impact in the relationship between Mayor Bodker and the council.

In May of this year, the Johns Creek City Council met to consider launching a formal investigation into the mayor’s actions in order to document the matter and ultimately remove him from office. Currently four councilmembers support the investigation and one opposes it. The fifth councilmember – Bev Miller – resigned her position in order to run against Bodker for mayor.

One of the key issues has been the mayor’s scope of authority, and that seems to be a very gray area. An example might be a situation in which a company is considering relocating to Johns Creek. That company calls the mayor’s office to complain because they are running into overwhelming red tape and asks if there is something that he can do about it. Most mayors would probably respond by saying, “let me see if I can help you navigate this” or “let me call the department you are having trouble with and see what we might be able to do.” Depending on what department is involved and the nature of the issue, the final decision is usually made by a vote at city council or it is an administrative decision. So technically, has the mayor overstepped his bounds by becoming “involved” outside of the official system? The council would say “yes.” The mayor would say “no.” That is an over-simplified example but it illustrates the nature of one of the major issues at the heart of the matter – where does the mayor’s mandate end and the council’s begin?

The second issue is simply a lack of relevant factual information. Prior to Mondays “interim report” The Johns Creek City Council released very little information related to their investigation. The mayor had repeatedly asked to be advised of specific accusations or issues being investigated and none were forthcoming. Council had requested an array of personal information from Bodker including personal phone records dating back five years and personal housing documents. He responded to some of their requests, but not all of them.

The third issue is the timing of the investigation. It is occurring right before the election in which Mayor Bodker faces the former Councilmember and Mayor Pro-tem Bev Miller – who has been all but invisible and silent during all the ongoing controversy. There are two ways to view this timing. The first is that council finally had enough of the mayor’s “interference” in matters that should have been dealt with solely by council and initiated their investigation that happened to coincide with the election. Obviously, the other possibility is that the timing of the investigation was designed to help defeat the mayor in his reelection bid. The fourth issue really should not be an issue because it has nothing directly to do with the mayor or the investigation by the council – but it is. It has significantly muddied the waters and made an already confusing situation worse. That issue is the widely reported incident involving City Manager Kachmar, which has resulted in a police report being filed and calls for his resignation.

From this point, it just goes downhill. Council has been criticized for not immediately firing or at least expressing their position on Kachmar’s behavior, as if that lack of action or comment was a reflection on their judgment or credibility. This paper contacted other mayors, and the general feeling was that behavior of this type would result in termination. However, personnel decisions in most cities are generally held in executive session – behind closed doors – and it is certainly reasonable and understandable for Johns Creek Council or administrative staff to refrain from commenting until a decision has been made in executive session.

The most recent piece of fuel that has been added to the flames has been the use of official city communication venues. The city of Johns Creek – on behalf of council – issued a scathing and opinionated statement attacking Bodker that appeared on the city website and city emails. However, Bodker also used a city communication venue to release a statement calling for Kachmar’s resignation and also calling into question council’s values if they did not take a public position on the issue. This paper believes that both actions were inappropriate and used poor judgment.

While it is difficult for me to believe that the council is actually using the investigation as a tool to defeat Bodker in the election, their decision to release so little concrete information up until Monday seems to point in that direction. I wish council had provided more facts during the course of their investigation. It is also difficult for me to believe that after a successful blemish-free seven years at the helm that Bodker all of a sudden is dirty or that he cannot work with council successfully.

What is really going on behind the scenes here? It is possible that the city manager may be playing a substantial role behind the scenes and that he has had significant influence on what council has done and how they have done it. Who crafted the changes in the city charter and whose idea was that? Where did the plan to essentially oust the mayor originate? When did the city’s relationship and dealings with Alpharetta and Roswell begin to deteriorate and why? The answers to those questions might go a long way in understanding how the city got into this mess and what is going on.

The losers in all of this are the citizens of Johns Creek. You deserve better. Unfortunately the situation seems eerily similar to the one we just experienced on the national level – a very dysfunctional and polarized elected government. And that’s not good. We have to find a way to do better.