By Rebecca Grapevine, contributor
Stone Mountain, GA — Near the end of a lengthy and often heated city council meeting on Tuesday night, Stone Mountain Mayor Beverly Jones introduced a proposal to rename East Mountain Street after Martin Luther King, Jr.
The renaming would both honor Dr. King’s non-violent legacy and help with the city’s rebranding effort, Jones contended.
“The mountain has been so much trouble the past two years and that has rolled over into our community,” Jones said.
Jones was referring to controversies over the confederate memorial carved into the side of Stone Mountain.
Passionate protesters on both sides of the issue have marched in the town’s streets, even though the mountain lies outside the majority Black city’s jurisdiction and control.
“We want to rebrand and be our own city,” Jones said. “I think that there’s no better way to do some rebranding than to do it for a man who was about peace.”
Councilmembers Teresa Crowe, Shawnette Bryant, and Chakira Johnson expressed surprise at the proposal, saying they had not been notified about it in advance.
“There is a lot of work in changing a name,” said Crowe. She said the council should consult affected residents and business owners before making any changes.
Businesses would need to change their marketing materials to reflect the new name and residents might need to get new driver’s licenses, Crowe said.
A citizen named Denise pointed out that the West Mountain portion of the street does not fall within the city’s jurisdiction.
Mayor Jones said the state legislature would have to get involved to change the name of the West Mountain portion of the street, but argued the city should proceed with changing the name where it can.
Resident Michael Schaapok accused the mayor of using Dr. King’s name for self-aggrandizement. “When have you served a night in jail?” he asked Jones.
“I served a night in jail with my parents, who were beaten when they marched for civil rights,” the mayor replied.
Mayor Jones initially said she hoped to reach agreement on the change by Juneteenth (June 19), a holiday that celebrates the emancipation of African Americans from slavery.
But Councilmember Johnson urged Jones to “take [the proposal] off the fast track” to allow more time for input from citizens.
Because Juneteenth falls on a Sunday this year, the city will celebrate a day early, on June 18, to avoid conflicts with church services.
A Juneteenth committee has been formed to plan events, the mayor said in a separate part of the meeting.
Much of the meeting was taken up by procedural debates that have plagued the council since January.
The question of how long a councilmember should be allowed to sit on the Downtown Development Authority is proving difficult to resolve.
The Stone Mountain charter is silent on the matter, meaning the council must defer to state law, said City Attorney Jeff Strickland.
And, under state law, the council lacks the authority to remove a member from the DDA no matter how long he or she has held the DDA position.
Johnson’s term “does not expire but runs for so long as she remains a city council member,” said a memo Strickland submitted to the council.
Johnson said her last reappointment to the DDA was in 2014.
Gil Freeman argued that the Georgia Municipal Association had provided him with information different from the attorney’s about how the DDA appointments should work.
The council agreed to gather further information from the Georgia Municipal Association with the hope of voting on the issue at its next meeting – a voting session – on Tuesday, May 3.
The council agreed that it will finalize the selection of the mayor pro tempore at that early May meeting.
Johnson is the current mayor pro tempore, although the terms of the vote approving her for that position are also disputed.
The council will hold a special called meeting later today to approve a 30-day extension to its public health emergency order.
That will allow the council to continue meeting virtually while hammering out a plan to return to in-person or hybrid meetings.
Councilmembers and citizens alike appeared frustrated with the amount of time these controversies have taken to resolve.
“We’ve been talking about mayor pro tempore and DDA since the beginning of January and we’re still where we’re at,” said Councilmember Bryant.
“This is an exhausting waste of city residents time and resources. Can we please move onto more pressing things like infrastructure?” wrote Carol Williams on the meeting’s Facebook page.
One infrastructure problem is that bricks are falling off the side of 933/935 Main Street onto Manor Street. The city has blocked off Manor Street for safety, said Downtown Development Authority executive director Kayla Johnson.
The council considered a zoning variance proposal that would allow the creation of a new 13-home development next to the Hearthstone Park neighborhood at the abandoned VFW site at 5233 Cloud Street.
The price of the homes will be market-driven without any set aside for affordable housing, said Michael Ray, who represents the builder.
Ray said he estimated the home prices would start in the mid-$400,000 range.
Councilmembers Freeman and Cox expressed concern that the new homes might increase property tax rates in the city.
The council will vote on the variance at the next meeting.
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