Sunday Morning Meditation – Avondale confidential
The last time Avondale Estates Mayor Ed Rieker spoke to me was on April 15, three days after a tragic fire occurred in the city. He sent me an email that was a reply to an email I sent with the subject line, “Heads up.”
I wanted to give you a heads up because I just got back with a copy of the report from the fire this Saturday, and happened to notice this article in the AJC.
Based on what this report says, from the time the call was created to the arrival time was 6 minutes, 47 seconds.
Don’t know if you got your information from fire officials, but that’s what the report says.
Here was the mayor’s response:
Thanks for your email. I don’t see a report? Did you mean to attach something?
All the best,
I attached the report and sent it to him. That was the last I heard from him.
Shortly after I received that message, other members of the city administration, most notably City Manager Clai Brown, stopped talking to us as well. The city Communications Manager, who makes $55,000 a year, told me she isn’t allowed to talk to the media and that all comments about city government must come from the mayor.
The blacklisting of this publication was never explained to me. When I first began covering the city, the mayor welcomed us with open arms. He even gave Decaturish a shout out at his “State of the City” address.
Even the City Commissioners I spoke with were confused by it and didn’t understand why the city manager and mayor were adamantly opposed to speaking to us. It was just bizarre.
Since the mayor wouldn’t respond to any of my questions about city government, I had to file records requests. I filed several of them over the next few days. Topics included:
– Building permits for the house destroyed in the April 12 fire. I was allowed to inspect those.
– A list of salaries and job descriptions for city officials. The city responded by providing a list of names and the hourly wages for each employee, without the employee’s title. I then had to calculate the employee’s salary based on the hours they worked each week and identify their job title by cross referencing it with the names of employees listed on the city website. The city administration claims it does not have a document listing the names of city employees and their titles, not even an internal phone directory.
– Records pertaining to Mayor Rieker’s purchase of property in the city’s downtown. One of the records I requested was a lease between the city’s Downtown Development Authority – which once owned the building that Rieker later purchased and renamed Tudor Square – and the developer of a mixed use project Century/AG Avondale, LLC. The city said it does not maintain this record. Then, this week, I found the lease in some property records I discovered online. When I confronted attorney Stephen Quinn about this, he replied that the city is not really responsible for DDA records, even though the city had previously responded to DDA records requests.
About a month after I last heard from Rieker, the mayor sent his infamous “cyber bullying” email to residents, making vague accusations that I’d done something terrible in the process of covering the April 12 fire.
The mayor and city manager have never explained what this terrible thing was, or provided any evidence that I’d done something wrong.
The timing of all this is interesting to me. The last email I got from Rieker was an exchange where I pointed out that he was factually wrong in making a statement to another media outlet. The cyber bullying email was sent right around the time I was haggling over requests for records pertaining to his purchase of some property downtown, a purchase he made while he was also serving as an elected official.
This property purchase has been portrayed, mostly by the mayor, as a kind gesture by a man who just wants to see his city prosper. Since he purchased the property in 2013, he has become a landlord for a growing number of Avondale’s downtown businesses. He routinely has applications pertaining to the Tudor Square building pending before the City Commission and other city boards. The city also regularly promotes his property and its tenants in city emails sent to residents.
One elected official in Avondale that I spoke to is concerned about this situation. The official realizes that the mayor has taken a risk by buying this property, opening the city up to all kinds of questions like the ones I’m asking right now. Like other officials and residents in Avondale, this official is afraid to speak up. Why?
Read the cyber bullying email. The mayor is not above throwing his weight around. Recently the mayor has been attending Historic Preservation Commission meetings and berating HPC members for not approving an application of one of the city’s residents. He then told the Historic Preservation Commission members that they were required to attend a “mandatory” meeting with the City Commission. Incidentally, he also had business pending before the Architectural Review Board, which has the same members as HPC and meets on the same day.
Even though Avondale has a City Manager, it’s clear the mayor often calls the shots. But is that necessarily a bad thing?
I’ve had more than a few people tell me that Rieker’s time as Avondale’s mayor has produced progress the city hasn’t seen in years. They point to the growth of the city’s business community – including the businesses in the mayor’s building – as evidence of his success.
It’s true the city is beginning to see a renaissance and that the mayor is getting a lot of the credit for it. I always respond to this argument by asking this: if this were the city of Atlanta and the mayor owned a nice piece of commercial property downtown, would people be asking some questions about it? I believe so, and there’d be plenty of people asking them.
As best I can tell, my only transgression covering Avondale is that I’m the only member of the media with an interest in asking some obvious questions about this situation.
Why did the mayor buy this property while serving as an elected official? How does the city ensure that his business interests are not a conflict with his duties as mayor? Why does the city continue to use taxpayer resources to promote the mayor’s commercial interests in the city?
At the risk of seeming like a cyber bully, I think those are questions that deserve answers. It’s already clear that the mayor won’t be providing any. Records requests are the only other alternative I have, and the city has demonstrated that it intends to fight me tooth and nail on those requests.
Perhaps the biggest question of all is why the city’s staff and its attorney have resorted to legal technicalities to avoid disclosing records that could shed light on the mayor’s property purchase?
I’m sure the city will respond by saying it’s totally committed to transparency, as its attorneys have done in email correspondence to me. I think the city doth protest too much.