Decatur City Attorney Bryan Downs, left, in a heated exchange with Immigration Enforcement Review Board member Phil Kent and board chairman Shawn Hanley, right. JEREMY REDMON/jredmon@ajc.com
Photo: Jeremy Redmon/jredmon@ajc.com
Photo: Jeremy Redmon/jredmon@ajc.com

Cagle-Decatur dispute heats up with bizarre confrontation in Atlanta

Add this to the drama sparked by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s feud with Decatur: a bizarre spectacle that played out publicly Wednesday between city and state-appointed immigration enforcement officials in the shadow of the state Capitol.

The extraordinary exchange involved one member of the Immigration Enforcement Review Board asking City Attorney Bryan Downs whether he was “afraid” to carry their heated conversation into the hallway of the Legislative Office Building. That’s where the board’s chairman gave Downs a tongue-lashing.

So far, Cagle’s dispute with Decatur has triggered a state ethics complaint against himan open records lawsuit against the board and lots of cross words between the parties.

Tensions boiled over near the end of the board’s meeting Wednesday after it heard updates on pending complaints, including one Cagle has filed against the city. Cagle, a Republican candidate for governor, has alleged a city policy that limits cooperation with federal immigration authorities violates state law against “sanctuary policies.” Decatur has vigorously denied that.

As Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett and Police Chief Mike Booker watched and as city staff filmed the sparsely attended meeting, Downs rose to ask a question. Board chairman Shawn Hanley reminded him the panel had no plans to hear from the public at that meeting, which lasted about 10 minutes.

The board quickly adjourned, but Downs persisted. He asked why board member Phil Kent had just moved to approve the minutes of a meeting in which Cagle’s complaint against the city was discussed. He reminded Kent of his decision to abstain from the case. Kent announced his decision in March after Decatur accused him being “clearly biased an openly hostile” toward the city, allegations Kent has denied.

“We just had a regular meeting,” Kent responded.

Downs: “And you were the one to move the approval of minutes.”

Kent: “We are not going to grandstand here with you.”

Downs: “I’m having a chance to talk to you, Mr. Kent, and you are walking away.”

Kent: “You can talk to me out in the hall, if you want.”

Downs: “Why don’t we talk right here?”

Kent: “Come on. Are you afraid to talk to me out in the hall?”

Downs, who has accused Cagle of not being “man enough” to show up in person for a hearing on his complaint against the city, followed Kent to the hallway and continued to ask him about his vote. Kent replied: “I am going to have nothing to do with review panels or any discussions” about the complaint.

Downs: “You just did. We will file an objection …”

Kent: “I’m sure you will anyway.”

Joining them, Hanley told Downs the city should focus on its policy rather than on the immigration enforcement board’s legitimacy.

Downs: “We are very focused on our policies.”

Hanley: “I don’t think you are because all you do is file litigation on technicalities on whether we should even exist.”

Downs: “That is important, too.”

Hanley: “OK, go ahead. But you are not focused on the policy and the citizens of Decatur are shortchanged for that.”

Cagle released a statement after the meeting Wednesday, predicting he will prevail with his complaint against the city.

“The city’s attorney,” he said, “has responded with a lot of screaming — at me and now the board members — but not a lot of substantive defense of its illegal policy.”

Downs responded to Cagle with his own statement Wednesday, saying the city has given the board extensive explanations about why its policy is legal.

“If Mr. Cagle had come to the hearing on May 15, he would have heard it himself,” Downs said. “I would also point out that last month Chief Booker invited Mr. Cagle to sit down over a cup of coffee to discuss the policy and any concerns he has about it. Unfortunately, that invitation has been ignored.”