Writer: Ben Brasch
Published February 12, 2020
The city of South Fulton’s ethics board plans to conduct a mini-trial to determine if a City Council member must repay public money used to cover expenses for a training seminar that he did not complete.
Members of the ethics board on Monday night voted to move forward with the complaint against councilman Khalid Kamau, who in late August attended the Robert E. Knox Jr. Municipal Leadership Institute on Jekyll Island.
Kamau said he left early from the four-day training seminar after Gov. Brian Kemp issued a state of emergency — not an evacuation — in Glynn and several other counties as Hurricane Dorian approached.
The resident who filed the complaint, Patricia Wise, said she was concerned about officials misusing money when she heard about the Jekyll Island issue from another council member at a public meeting.
At a Nov. 12 City Council meeting, council member Helen Willis said she wanted the mayor to investigate Kamau not getting credit for the seminar — which cost the public $2,600.
“Our tax dollars were spent on a class that a person did not get credit for,” she said.
Khalid quickly responded: “Yes, that’s the class I left [because of] a hurricane.”
The ethics complaint is yet another example of the squabbling that the South Fulton City Council has exhibited since the city incorporated in May 2017. Initiated by Khalid, he and three other council members during the holidays unsuccessfully tried to remove Willis and Mayor Bill Edwards from office for their roles in a development deal.
Residents and leaders of the young city keep saying they want to move forward from the drama, but Willis spoke against Kamau at the ethics board hearing. The ethics board also considered — but ultimately dismissed — a complaint by Wise against council member Naeema Gilyard for allegedly misusing taxpayer dollars on a purchase at Victoria Secret that ended up being for a school drive.
“People have said that there’s a lot of infighting on council and there’s a petty streak through council, but we’re representatives of the city,” Kamau said. “So the infighting you’re seeing is a reflection of our constituency.”
Ethics board member Kenneth Joe said the complaints were created by council members playing politics.
“There is no trust between the council right now, they can’t work these things out. They can’t trust each other, and that’s why this is sitting here,” Joe said.
Of the 43 people who attended the Jekyll Island seminar, Kamau was the only one who left early and didn’t graduate. Other attendees include fellow South Fulton council member Catherine Rowell.
Kamau said locals told him to leave so he wouldn’t get stuck in evacuation traffic.
Courtney Alford-Pomeroy, spokeswoman for the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, which helps run the event, said no one remembers an official weather alert from the organizers to the participants.
“I’m not sure why they stayed when the governor asked us to leave,” Kamau said of the other seminar attendees.
But the state of emergency issued by Kemp on Aug. 29 was not an evacuation. Kemp’s order prohibited price-gouging and was an acknowledgement of areas in the path of serious storms. Kamau said he left on Aug. 30, the last day of the seminar, but Kemp didn’t issue an evacuation until Sept. 1.
Kamau said he will hire an attorney for the ethics hearing, which is conducted like a trial and allows each side to present evidence. Kamau said he plans on asking City Council to pay for his attorney’s fees, similar to how the council approved repaying the mayor and Willis about $30,000 for legal fees they racked up during the hearing regarding their removal.
Any punitive ruling by the ethics board would have to be ratified by a majority vote of the City Council.
Kamau said he was not only disappointed at the ethics board decision, but worried.
“My fear is that it won’t be the last time, that the ethics committee will become politicized,” he said.
Ethics board chair O.V. Brantley said she has 60 days from the Jan. 27 complaint filing to hold the final hearing. She said she hopes that will happen in early March.