Mayor’s indictment puts Snellville shenanigans back in the spotlight

2:15 p.m Friday, Sept. 8, 2017 Local
Snellville City Hall in 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

The toilet incident — or incidents, depending on how one looks at it — were not the start of political shenanigans in Snellville.

Gwinnett County’s most infamously ignominious city government had its share of issues beforehand. But those bathroom-based headlines from 2009 — a mayor calling code enforcement over a commode in a councilman’s front yard; the same mayor, fearing retribution, asking for an armed escort to the can — were prime examples of the pettiness and infighting that came to define Snellville politics for years.

Thursday, however, the allegation of government misdeeds entered a new, far more serious chapter.

A grand jury returned a 66-count indictment against current Mayor Tom Witts. It accuses Witts of numerous crimes, including tax evasion; lying on official documents about owing taxes when he ran for both city council and for mayor; improperly allowing his business to perform work for the city; and using campaign funds for personal expense.

The charges are in a different league than most of the political foibles in Snellville’s past. But they certainly add to the already extensive lore.

“I don’t know how to compare it to other places,” State Rep. Brett Harrell, who was Snellville’s mayor from 1999-2003, said this week with a knowing laugh. “But it’s certainly an exciting place to be involved in public service.”

In Feb. 2009, Mayor Jerry Oberholtzer reported councilman and arch-nemesis Robert Jenkins to city code enforcement, sending an officer photos of the old toilet and broken-down car that graced Jenkins’ yard.

Jenkins, who was unsurprised when told who’d ratted him out, got a warning.

A week or so after that, news broke that Oberholtzer had been asking for — and receiving — a police escort to the restroom at City Hall. As Atlanta-Journal Constitution columnist Rick Badie put it at the time, Oberholtzer “felt that he and Jenkins might get into fisticuffs.”

It was that same year that a state senator from Snellville introduced a bill that would’ve taken away the mayor’s voting powers unless they were needed to break a tie among the city’s five council members. It was an attempt to end a string of contentious 3-3 votes on issues ranging from controversial crematory proposals to the typically mundane decision to adjourn a council meeting.

When reached by phone, Tom Witts told Channel 2's Tony Thomas he hadn't heard of the indictment.

The bill failed and, in November 2009, Witts bested Jenkins to become a Snellville city councilman for the first time. He proclaimed that his arrival, along with that of two more newcomers, would bring an “end to the divisiveness.”

He could not have been more wrong.

“I’ve told people before that politics in Snellville is … a full-body sport,” said Kelly Kautz, who was a councilwoman when Witts was first elected and would later become one of his primary rivals.

There was, in fact, a brief period of relative peace at Snellville City Hall after 2009’s elections. Then Kautz was elected mayor in 2011, narrowly defeating council colleague Barbara Bender — who was publicly supported by three other council members, including Witts.

On her first day in power, Kautz rammed through her appointment of Mike Sabbagh as mayor pro tem, breaking the tradition of allowing the full council to vote on the matter. According to reports from that first meeting, she also skipped over agenda items and “chided” council members for speaking out of order.

“My God,” Oberholtzer, Kautz’s predecessor as mayor, told The AJC at the time. “I look like a sweetheart after last night.”

Things would only get worse.

Kautz and the council, and Witts in particular, would repeatedly butt heads over the following years.

Witts supported a resident’s 2013 ethics complaint filed against Kautz over city money used to pay for a leadership course. They quarreled over small things and large, winding up in front of the Georgia Supreme Court (over Kautz’s power to fire the city attorney) and a local judge (over Kautz’s power to hire a city clerk).

A new lawsuit in the latter matter was filed earlier this summer.

In April 2015, Witts announced he was going to run for mayor. He won that November’s election, ousting Kautz.

About five months later, local and state investigators executed search warrants at the new mayor’s home and business.

Longtime Snellville resident and political observer Brenda Lee worked on the 1999 mayoral campaign that ended with Harrell, the current state senator, besting 26-year incumbent Emmett Clower for the office.

That race was contentious (and included both candidates trying to prove they hated MARTA more than their opponent). But once Harrell took office, he and the council worked together professionally and courteously, Lee said.

From her perspective, things began sour as members of that group started to trickle out of office and new personalities were elected. Some were more concerned with their own agendas than the city, Lee said, and few had any problem with airing grievances publicly.

“I’ve traveled all over the country, and pretty much everywhere has its own little issues,” Lee said. “Some [places] are better than others at keeping those issues below the radar and fighting it out privately.”

Snellville politics took yet another strange turn this week with the indictment of Witts, who was expected to turn himself in to the Gwinnett County jail on or before Sept. 15. And whether or not a toilet was involved, Lee and other residents have complained, Snellville’s political reputation went a little bit further down the tubes.

“The reputation, it’s self-created,” Lee said. “It’s not external, it’s internal.”

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