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In This Georgia Suburb, Old Rivalries Rule Today's Politics

"People are probably tired of their city being in the headlines," says former Snellville Mayor Kelly Kautz.

Snellville
Snellville, Ga., City Hall
(Snellville)
It’s always embarrassing for a town when the mayor is indicted. But in the case of Snellville, Ga., a 66-count indictment brought against the current mayor is just one example of long-running dysfunction and rivalry in the local government.

Snellville is a suburb of Atlanta, not far from Stone Mountain. In September, Mayor Tom Witts was indicted on charges of tax evasion, using campaign funds for personal expenses and funneling government contracts to his private business, among other alleged offenses. Witts says he is innocent, but shortly after the indictment he suspended himself from office so that his case wouldn’t interfere with city functions.

Danny Porter, the Gwinnett County district attorney who brought the charges, makes no bones about the fact that his investigation was triggered by Witts’ political rivals. “It was a politically motivated complaint,” Porter told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But just because it’s politically motivated doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

Porter said he gets requests after every election to launch criminal investigations. Gwinnett County in general and Snellville in particular have changed demographically in recent years, switching from largely white and conservative to heavily minority. The county as a whole gave its vote last year to Hillary Clinton. Yet white Republicans continue to hold most political offices, and they are split into factions that bicker constantly. “For whatever reason, folks have been there a long time and they just don’t like each other,” says Bill Torpy, a columnist with the Journal-Constitution. “It’s almost like political parties. There are two groups, almost like families, and somehow they’ve lined up against each other.”

Back when Witts was a member of the city council, he regularly sparred with his predecessor in the mayor’s office, Kelly Kautz. They fought about minor things, such as money paid to take a leadership course, and more serious matters, like her appointment powers. An argument over Kautz’s ability to fire the city attorney reached all the way to the state Supreme Court. In 2014, she sued the city council for holding secret meetings, blocking her appointments and generally giving her a hard time. Last year, the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld a ruling ordering the city to pay Kautz more than $83,000 in legal fees. By that time, she was out of office, having been beaten in 2015 by Witts.

The Witts-Kautz dispute is just one of a long series of fights between Snellville mayors and the city council. Back in 2009, Mayor Jerry Oberholtzer called code enforcement to complain about a city councilman who kept a toilet and a car in his front yard. Then, apparently fearing retribution, Oberholtzer asked the police chief to escort him to the bathroom at city hall.

Snellville has changed, but its politics continue to be dominated by old rivalries, petty and deadly serious. “People are probably tired of their city being in the headlines,” Kautz said last year. It’s a problem that shows no signs of going away. 

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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