Clarkston Mayor Emmanuel Ransom was called in front of the city’s ethics committee earlier this month after residents complained he used his influence as mayor to settle a code enforcement dispute.
Residents filed the complaint after a WSB-TV report aired on Dec. 6, 2011, in which a reporter questioned Ransom about an e-mail he sent to former Clarkston code enforcement officer Shelly Sheppard. The e-mail was in regard to reported code violations at Talars International Foods, located off Montreal Road.
Based on evidence presented at the hearing, the e-mail sent to Sheppard stated that “Ransom Consultants Inc. had been retained by Talars International Food,” and requested an extension to allow the business to obtain and file the proper paperwork to bring the building up to code.
At the hearing Ransom said he had been asked by a friend to speak to the owner of Talars Foods and help the business become compliant with the city’s code ordinances, which he did. Ransom also stated that Ransom Consultants Inc., cited in the e-mail, was nothing more than a name he conducted personal business under—there was no business license filed for Ransom Consultants Inc. He said he was operating in his capacity as a private citizen, not mayor.
“I was trying to be a good Samaritan to a business owner,” Ransom said. “I wasn’t twisting arms…I just sent them a letter stating that [the owner] was going to come into compliance but he wasn’t aware of what he had to do, and [asked] the city to give him the opportunity to gather all the information he needed to go through the process.”
City Manager Keith Barker said Sheppard sent him an e-mail explaining the earlier e-mail sent to her by Ransom regarding code enforcement issues, and he told her to treat the code violations by Talars Foods “like any other code enforcement issue.”
Since the ethics committee is made up of residents it does not have subpoena power. Neither Sheppard nor the owner of Talars Foods, Abdul Bin Khalifa, were present to be called as witnesses because Sheppard no longer works for the city and Khalifa had a prior engagement.
Sonny Knox, one of the residents who filed the ethics complaint against Ransom, asked Barker during the hearing whether the mayor’s choice of words in the initial e-mail raised any red flags.
“When you read that the mayor was using terms like ‘my client,’ and ‘Ransom Consultants Inc. had been retained by…’ did this not raise any kind of red flag with you?” Knox asked.
Barker said, as city manager, it was his concern to ensure his staff conducted themselves professionally and appropriately, which he said was done in the matter regarding Talars Foods.
Barker was also asked if Sheppard’s departure from the city’s code enforcement office had anything to do with the matter, to which he said “no.”
“She was in a part-time position and that particular position I recruited people for and interviewed other candidates, as well as [Sheppard], and chose someone else,” Barker said.
Clarkston has a large immigrant population and Barker said immigrants who own businesses or are trying to start one sometimes come to Ransom for help.
“The problem was that he used the word ‘retained’ which is an inference he was being paid to do that,” Barker said. “The mayor said it was an unfortunate choice of words and no money exchanged hands.”
Barker said the ethics committee is reviewing its findings and will decide whether Ransom violated the city’s code of ethics.
Knox said he is waiting for the ethics committee’s decision but said he and the residents who filed the complaint weren’t given a fair hearing.
“We called two witnesses and neither of them were there. We requested e-mails and were told there was no way they could be delivered before the hearing—I did request twice from the chair that the hearing be delayed and they were denied each time,” Knox said.
Ransom, during a closing statement at the end of the nearly three-hour-long hearing, admitted he mistakenly used an unfortunate choice of words.