HOSCHTON, Ga. — The mayor of a mostly white north Georgia city is being criticized for comments attributed to her that the community isn't ready to have an African American city administrator, a newspaper reported Monday.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that interviews and documents it obtained show that Hoschton Mayor Theresa Kenerly expressed concerns regarding a black finalist for the job, Keith Henry.
Hoschton, a small community in Jackson County northeast of Atlanta, has 1,662 residents, of whom more than 80 percent are white, according to 2017 census data.
Councilwoman Hope Weeks wrote that the mayor told her that Henry was a good candidate, "but he was black and we don't have a big black population and she just didn't think Hoschton was ready for that." Weeks wrote that account in a document dated March 4, released by the city in response to the newspaper's open records request.
The mayor said in a statement that she doesn't recall making such a comment.
"I do not recall making the statement attributed to me regarding any applicant for the City Administrator position, and I deny that I made any statement that" suggests prejudice, she said.
Councilman Jim Cleveland defended the mayor, telling the newspaper in an interview that he "understood where she was coming from."
"I understand Theresa saying that, simply because we're not Atlanta," Cleveland said. "Things are different here."
"I don't know how they would take it if we selected a black administrator," he added. "She might have been right."
During the hiring process, Weeks consulted with Councilwoman Susan Powers, and both women decided to take their concerns about the mayor to City Attorney Thomas Mitchell, the newspaper reported.
"Both of us were just appalled, so we thought we had to do something to stop it," Powers said. She wrote in one email that the mayor tried to conceal Henry's application from council members, the newspaper reported.
"Since she corrupted this entire process by trying to shield the application of Mr. Henry from Council members and then making the comment to the effect that while he is qualified he should not be considered because he is black and the city is not ready for this, she should not be a part of this hiring process," Powers wrote. "I am appalled that in 2019 an applicant would not be hired based solely on the color of their skin."
A deal was struck between Mitchell and the city's five elected officials to continue the hiring process that allowed the mayor to attend — but not participate — in the candidate interviews, according to a series of emails obtained by the newspaper.
"She is not going to speak or ask questions," attorney Mitchell wrote in one of the emails.
The attorney also warned city officials to stop putting their concerns in writing, writing in a March 14 email that he didn't think it in the best interests of the city "to continue emailing in this manner."
Henry was a finalist for the job before withdrawing to accept another position, Weeks said.
Cleveland told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that views are different in Hoschton than in Atlanta.
"I'm a Christian and my Christian beliefs are you don't do interracial marriage. That's the way I was brought up and that's the way I believe," Cleveland was quoted as telling the newspaper.
"I have black friends, I hired black people, he added. "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."
A telephone message to city hall from The Associated Press was not immediately returned late Monday.
Racial discrimination in hiring has been against federal law since passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.