By Kathy Jefcoats
FOREST PARK — Forest Park City Council was within its legal rights in removing one of its members in July 2011, a Clayton County Superior Court judge has ruled.
Former Ward 2 Councilwoman Karen-Brandee Williams had appealed the decision primarily based on her argument that Council didn't have the authority to remove one of its own members. Chief Judge Deborah Benefield ruled in the city's favor in an order handed down Friday, the Clayton News-Daily has learned.
Forest Park City Attorney Joe Harris said Tuesday that the ruling could mean the Ward 2 seat that has been vacant since Williams' removal could be put on the March 19 special election ballot.
"We're trying to figure out if we have time to include the seat in the special election," he said. "We're not sure right now because she has the right to appeal."
The special election is being held to replace retired Mayor Corine Deyton and the Ward 1 seat, which is expected to be vacated Feb. 1 by Sparkle Adams for a run at the mayor's spot.
Williams' attorney, Quinton Washington, said his firm doesn't do appellate work and he is unsure if she will take the next judicial step. He said Tuesday he had mixed feelings about the ruling.
"Overall, we're disappointed but we're heartened with the fact that we were able to have the case decided on the merits," he said. "I do understand what Judge Benefield's position is."
City Manager John Parker was hesitant to comment in depth because of Williams' right to appeal — the case isn't officially over.
"She has the right to an appeal," said Parker. "And we will have to wait for that time to expire before we can look at moving forward."
Benefield also denied Williams' request for the city to pay her attorneys fees.
Williams was removed from her seat after an Ethics Board hearing officer sustained "misappropriation of funds" and 15 of 25 ethics violations filed against her by three residents. The most serious charge involved an accusation Williams bought personal property with public funds for her personal and/or political use. Specifically, Williams testified under oath that she bought T-shirts with tax dollars. Those shirts displayed information that seemed more campaign-related than the promotion of a city-approved event.
Williams had served 18 months of her four-year term when she was removed. She pleaded for compassion and consideration for her freshman status on Council during the July 28, 2011, public hearing that resulted in her removal.
She was later indicted on theft by taking charges related to the purchase of the T-shirts. Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson dropped the charges Nov. 2 after Williams successfully completed a pre-trial diversion and intervention program.
Williams also has a federal discrimination complaint pending against Forest Park related to her claim of physical disabilities while still on Council. Williams alleges the city violated her civil rights by failing to provide her with "reasonable accommodations."
Williams said she suffers from fibromyalgia and asked city officials to buy an ergonomic chair to use during Council meetings.
The city built a ramp to the dais so Williams could ride a motorized scooter to her place at Council but balked at buying an expensive chair.