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The Snellville saga: Political controversy just another chapter in city's history

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Brett Harrell

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Emmett Clower

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Kelly Kautz

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Jerry Oberholtzer

This isn’t the first time Snellville’s mayor has taken the city to court.

While many residents are grieving the current City Hall strife, where mayor and council are publicly fighting about Snellville’s top appointed posts, the political divide isn’t new in the city “where everybody is somebody.”

More than once, copies of divorce papers have circled during election season. Stress has caused more than one heart ailment, and remember the toilet?

In a city whose very name was chosen when one founding family took advantage of another family leaving town for a few days, Snellville’s political fights date back generations.

Headlines have hounded the city for years, as council members squabble. And campaign season takes on a whole new meaning.

For those who know and love Snellville, the latest fiasco reached a new level Friday when Mayor Kelly Kautz filed suit against the city council, bringing the political temperature to a new high. But the city’s strife is not a new story, just a new chapter.

“Unfortunately, city council has a long storied history of squabbles. It’s sad,” said Melodie Snell Conner, Gwinnett’s chief Superior Court judge, whose ancestors founded the city.

Growing pains

Snellville’s charter dates backs to 1923, but it went dormant not long afterward. Famed school principal W.C. Britt helped revive the government, serving as mayor from 1940 to 1941, but the charter went dormant again until after World War II, said the Snellville Historical Society’s Tom Ewing.

Glyndia Norton, who was born in the city in 1940 and can trace her family roots back eight generations, said the community was tight-knit.

“People in the past every once in a while disagreed, but they worked for the betterment of all,” she said. “In those days, we’d sit around a table, solve a problem and go home.”

Development began in the 1960s, when brothers James and Wayne Mason helped develop neighborhoods, shopping centers and restaurants.

“I didn’t seem to have many problems with it,” said Bill Sager, who served as mayor from 1970 to 1971. “There’s always a person or two who isn’t happy and wants something different, but it was a very pleasurable experience.”

Conner said she remembers rumblings about the council when she was a girl, but she first took notice of divisiveness in the 1980s.

“A lot of it began as the county was in that huge growth spurt,” Conner said. “That was a lot of the struggle. … It kind of got political and then it seemed to get personal.”

When Judy Waters moved to the city in 1971, Snellville only had about 600 residents. But it was one of the first communities in Gwinnett to begin the transformation from rural to suburban.

“It was just a different era,” Waters said of her time on the city council, where she became the first woman to serve in 1979. “We had our issues, but they would probably be about the parade, not huge monumental issues.”

The city had a reputation at that time of being controlled by one man, Emmett Clower, whose family dated back generations. But Waters said the city ran smoothly until some “silly troublemakers” were elected in later years.

“There was a feeling in the community where Snellville was being run by the few, but in truth, not many people would step up to the plate,” said Waters, who went on to become a county commissioner. “We were all individuals serving the city. … We did not always agree, but we worked things out.”

Stress behind the scenes

While many of the city’s long-time residents say the troubles began with the 1999 election that ousted Clower after 26 years at the city’s helm, some say that election actually brought some stability into already warring factions.

“I didn’t like what was going on,” Kurt Schulz said of city fights in the 1980s, which his wife Gretchen documented as a reporter for the Gwinnett Daily News. “We love Snellville. We have since Day 1, so I started going to the meetings and checking it out.”

Schulz ran for the city council in 1991, joining a board that already had one other “newcomer” on it.

Nearly 30 years before the city switched to a city manager form of government, Schulz said one year he and his allies had the votes to change to the new structure.

But Clower, who declined to be interviewed for this article, filled the council chambers with residents who opposed the idea, and they dropped the issue.

“We saw how it was hurting the community, and we backed off of it,” Schulz said, adding, “Some days, I wish we had done it back then.”

Even one of the first city renegades says the rancor then never reached the level it hit earlier this month.

“Even though there was division many times, the public never saw it,” Schulz said. “It got worked out, but not in front of the public.”

But there was plenty of stress behind the scenes.

Anonymous tips from detractors caused the Schulz family to become the center of investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigations and Georgia Bureau of Investigation, even the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“When he was on the city council, I was literally afraid to go and start my car,” Gretchen Schulz said, adding that threats were even directed at their daughters. “I don’t know why Snellville politics has to be like that.”

One term was enough, so Schulz decided against putting his name on the ballot again. On his last day in office, he had a heart attack.

The pair stayed out of City Hall for years, but they eventually returned to council meetings. A few years ago, after retirement, they volunteered to coordinate a city farmer’s market and, last year, a community garden.

There, they said, the city’s shenanigans are only a backdrop to a community filled with families.

“It’s such a shame because it gives the city such a black mark,” Gretchen Schulz said of the racial and political division that was pronounced at a council session earlier this month. “You don’t see it at any of the events. … It’s like one big happy family.”

The new guard

Brett Harrell has always been labeled “new guard” in Snellville, but he has actually called the city home since 1972, when he was in eighth grade.

He always thought of Emmett Clower as mayor, and still calls him that when he crosses the man’s path today.

In 1993, as a young business owner, Harrell first came to City Hall for a rezoning process for a location of his printing company.

His address at the time was just outside the city limits, and Harrell said he was treated as an outsider. A couple of years later, now living within the city, he won a city council post but still felt ignored.

“Emmett did many, many good things, but he just didn’t keep up with the changing times, changing technology, changing demographics,” Harrell said, adding that even though he was the lone vote against Clower during his time on council, he often defended him while residents attacked him at the podium. “Time just passed him.”

In 1999, Harrell had enough of being ignored and he ran for mayor, with a slate of three allies running for council alongside him. All but one won the election, and that one ally, Melvin Everson, joined the council just eight months later in a special election, becoming the city’s first black councilman.

“There was a mindset; (people) assumed (Clower) would be mayor forever,” Harrell said. “So regardless of who was elected, the person who beat him would be seen as a dividing force.”

Now a state representative, Harrell doesn’t see it that way.

“When I think about my time, I don’t think about any fights. I think about what we accomplished,” he said.

Reaching out to the two council members who remained from the Clower era, they worked to increase pay for police officers, organizing and moderning operations and began the steps to create a city center.

They didn’t make the switch to a city manager government — that would come a few years later — but Harrell and the council unanimously agreed to rewrite the city charter, creating the base for the document that the mayor and council are feuding over today.

Clower and his allies talk about Harrell giving the mayor a vote for the first time in city history (other than in the case of a tie), but Harrell points out that every mayor in the area either has a vote or veto power. With a vote, at least, the politician can be accountable to the people.

He points out that without that power, current Mayor Kelly Kautz would not be the sole opposing vote but a mayor who presides over unanimous votes that she has no voice in.

“No one was becoming a king. There were checks and balances,” in the new charter, Harrell said. “But you can’t base it on personalities because personalities change.”

Harrell brought up checks and balances another time during the discussion — when talk centered around his election along with his “slate” of council members, one of whom did not make the cut. Politics always seems to have a way of creating its own checks and balances, he said.

Rarely — in Snellville, at least — does the electorate give all the power to one side of the political spectrum.

Heading down the toilet

Harrell’s tenure lasted just four years. Then he left to run the newly formed Evermore Community Improvement District, an entity that stretches outside the city limits to Stone Mountain and has had its own political warfare over the years.

Clower attempted a return to the mayoral office, but instead then-Councilman Jerry Oberholtzer, a Harrell ally, was elected by an even larger margin than Harrell.

As the new City Hall took shape, leaders successfully transitioned to the city manager form of government.

But politics played out quickly, and the council split into warring factions.

In 2003, the council approved “home rule” changes to the charter, taking away some of the mayor’s appointment powers — a move that was later reversed.

One nemesis, Councilman Robert Jenkins, who Oberholtzer called out for having a commode and a junk vehicle in his yard, made headlines by turning the toilet into a planter.

Once, the feud reached a point where the mayor asked the police chief to escort him to the restroom out of fear of reprisals.

In 2009, the rancor reached a point where a state senator stepped in, considering changing the city charter again, as the mayor and council reached a 3-3 stalemate on votes for months.

But Everson, the city’s House member at the time, didn’t support the change.

“I received numerous threatening letters” over the controversy, Everson said. “I stood my ground. It was not right for us to strip (the mayor) of his power.”

Later that year, another election rolled around, and the stalemate cleared.

Knowing that the next two years would be his last, due to term limits, Oberholtzer made a public commitment to reach out to the opposing side, including eventual mayoral winner Kautz. But that effort was doomed by politics.

“People were jockeying for who would succeed me,” Oberholtzer said, adding that he lost friends and allies simply for reaching out. “I spent 12 years giving my heart and soul to my city. I’m proud of what I did, and it pains me to see it all going downhill … But when people ask me to get involved again, I say, ‘Hell, no.’ I’m happy being a citizen.”

Kautz, who also grew up in the city, surprised a lot of the Snellville’s “new guard” with her 2011 mayoral victory. Little has gone smoothly since.

The general consensus from both sides of the political factions is sadness and embarrassment, and many say the next election in 2015 could be the only end in sight.

But elections are always on the horizon. In fact, this lastest struggle comes just two months after a political sweep at the ballot box.

“Growing up, everybody in Snellville was friends,” says Dexter Harrison, a 70-year-old who grew up on Pate Road when it was dirt.

While he didn’t live in the city limits for all of his adult life, he always called Snellville home. Yet he never worried about going to City Hall until about two years ago.

“It was getting worse over the years,” Harrison said, deciding to put his name on the ballot last fall. “It’s time that we get someone in there who will listen to the citizens,” he said of his decision to run, but adding that he likely wouldn’t have been able to have an impact on the controversy even if he had been successful.

But he is frustrated as a member of the Urban Redevelopment Association trying to recruit businesses at a time of such strife.

“One person can’t make a difference,” he said. “But we’ll just have to wait and see.”

A sullied reputation

Snellville’s reputation has taken more hits over the years than you can count.

Conner said her family members hear about it in doing work across the state for their road construction business E.R. Snell Contractor. A member of the Atlanta Regional Commission for two decades, Waters said she hears plenty of jokes.

“It’s silly because it’s so unnecessary,” Waters said. “That City Hall is gorgeous. … It’s really a shame.”

And both Everson, who works as Gov. Nathan Deal’s director of the Georgia Commission on Equal Opportunity, and Harrell hear about it from state colleagues.

When asked if he was considering changes to Snellville’s charter at the General Assembly, Harrell said, “the only thing I hear about Snellville’s charter in Atlanta is ‘revoke.’”

Norton said she wishes people could look toward the positives.

“The elected officials need to consider the spirit of Snellville,” she said. “They need to remember that the great things we have today have been accomplished by volunteers and leaders of the past.”

Her son Jimmy, a business leader who has served on the city commerce club and tourism group as well as other volunteer positions, noted that not only are the stakes higher in Snellville politics now, but the information age means more people take notice and get involved, which is never a bad thing for a city of 20,000.

“It’s been a dynamic process for the past three decades, four decades,” he said. “But it’s better to involve yourself and give back to your community because it gave back to me. … Sometimes good can come out of confusion.”

“It is what it is,” said Conner, who now lives outside the city limits, as does much of the Snell family. “But the city itself seems to function well. … It’s grown and prospered and people keep coming there.”

“We’re proud of Snellville,” Conner said of the Snell family. “My hope would be for all the political leaders to come together … that the town that bares our name to always be a great place to live.”

Jimmy Norton said it still is, and he is proud that he still lives in the community where he can trace back his roots.

“One person doesn’t make or break a city,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s not politics; it’s progress.”