DeKalb Commissioner Watson resigns to run for tax commissioner

DeKalb Commissioner Stan Watson, in and out of the spotlight due to accusations of misspending and ethical violations, resigned from the county commission Friday, but not from public life.

Watson filed to run for DeKalb tax commissioner, overseeing the collection of nearly $1 billion a year.

It’s been a challenging 11 months for Watson, whose pay is being garnished after losing a $150,500 lawsuit involving a barroom argument. He was reprimanded in August for voting to award $1.5 million in contracts to his employer. He faces allegations that he violated Georgia campaign fundraising laws by withdrawing money from a secret account.

He’ll face two other candidates in the May 24 primary election for tax commissioner, the highest-salaried job in DeKalb County with pay reaching $250,000.

Watson, who made about $40,000 a year representing 350,000 east DeKalb residents, didn’t return a phone call and email seeking comment Friday.

His opponents in the tax commissioner’s race said voters should elect a responsible official to handle their property and motor vehicle taxes.

“They have to be able to trust in the administration of funds,” said current DeKalb Tax Commissioner Irvin Johnson. “I’m running a campaign based on the ethical reputation and procedures we’ve established over the years.”

Susannah Scott, an attorney in the race, said taxpayers should be concerned about the allegations against Watson.

“Voters need to be aware of the history of all the candidates so they can make the best decision about who’s collecting taxes for DeKalb County,” said Scott, the daughter of former DeKalb Tax Commissioner Tom Scott. “It’s important that a tax commissioner be honest.”

Watson’s immediate departure from the DeKalb Commission, required by the Georgia Constitution upon qualifying for another office, creates conditions for the same kind of deadlocks that became regular occurrences before the southeast DeKalb seat was filled last summer. A special election likely will be held in November to complete the last two years of Watson’s term.

Watson, the commission’s deputy presiding officer, was part of the majority on the seven-member board that approved several major initiatives on 4-3 votes, including the county’s $1.32 billion budget, building a new animal shelter and the construction of a soccer complex, an effort that eventually failed. Without Watson, the board is evenly divided into factions of three commissioners each.

Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who usually voted with Watson, said his work representing constituents was often overshadowed by issues like the lawsuit he lost last April. Two women sued Watson for allegedly slandering them after he falsely accused them of stealing his wallet, leading to one of them being handcuffed by police for about an hour. He later found the wallet in his car.

“He was a good commissioner, and that’s totally separate from how he has been portrayed,” Sutton said. “That’s unfortunate that there will be so much focus on incidents in his personal life and not as much focus on his years of public service.”

But Commissioner Jeff Rader said voters in scandal-plagued DeKalb should be aware of Watson’s history, including his votes to award contracts to a property development company at the same time as he was being paid by the company to work as a consultant. The DeKalb Board of Ethics issued a reprimand of Watson for the conflict of interest.

“He’s made some very bad decisions reflecting poor character,” Rader said. “If you put someone who’s a political operative and has no background in that tax commissioner position, there’s a real danger of that becoming the center of political patronage.”

Watson also faces pending complaints with the DeKalb Board of Ethics and the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission for his use of an account managed by the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce. The account funded events such as the DeKalb International Food and Music Festival, but the complaints allege Watson violated state campaign finance laws because the spending promoted his candidacy.

In addition, Watson charged the public nearly $5,000 for personal cellphone costs over almost three years — an average of about $140 per month, according to bills analyzed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Watson has said he is repaying the county and would no longer bill for personal cellphone use.

Commissioner Kathie Gannon, who was in the board’s minority voting bloc, said Watson’s job as a commissioner was affected by his political ambitions. Watson, a former member of the Georgia House of Representatives, previously ran for DeKalb CEO in 2008. He was elected to the commission in 2010.

“I always had the sense he was running for something else,” Gannon said. “He’s going to have a very hard time with the campaign” for tax commissioner.

The tax commissioner’s race will be on the May 24 ballot twice. One vote will be for a tax commissioner to fill the last seven months of the current four-year term after Tax Commissioner Claudia Lawson retired Dec. 31; the other vote will be for the next four years starting in 2017.

Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, who was elected to represent southeast DeKalb last summer, said Watson looked out for his constituents and oversaw the county’s water and sewer infrastructure upgrades as chairman of the Public Works Committee.

She said she wants both sides on the commission to work together to avoid stalemates.

“I’m hopeful that we can discuss issues and have a dialogue and come to a consensus of what is best for the county,” she said. “He served the citizens quite well, and I’m going to miss him.”

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