Stonecrest’s founding mayor, Jason Lary, is still in federal prison, serving a 57-month sentence for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in pandemic relief money from taxpayers. The sentence was handed down less than five years after his 2017 election, following a guilty plea for wire fraud, conspiracy, and theft of government funds.
Corruption among leadership has dogged this city, which voters carved out of unincorporated DeKalb County in 2016. But with another mayoral election coming on Tuesday, that isn’t what’s worrying Stonecrest resident Marlon Sheard. He’s concerned about a much lower-level type of crime: the people trying to steal valuables out of cars in his neighborhood.
Sheard, 52, is an environmental health and safety manager who bought a home in Stonecrest’s Miller Park subdivision in 2018. Today, more than 61,000 people live in Stonecrest, which sits about 18 miles east of downtown Atlanta. It was one of several majority-Black suburbs to form out of unincorporated areas in what became known as the Atlanta region’s cityhood movement.
What government, taxation, and the delivery of local services looks like differs for each of the newly formed cities, and in Stonecrest, it’s become one of the hot-button issues in the current mayor’s race. Sheard is among many in the community calling for Stonecrest to establish its own police force instead of relying on DeKalb County law enforcement and off-duty officers from other jurisdictions to investigate and respond to reported crimes.
“We’ve had issues with people coming into the neighborhood, breaking and entering. Police don’t show up,” Sheard told Capital B Atlanta outside his home in October. “You might see a sheriff’s car once in a while come in the neighborhood, but out of sight, out of mind.”
The cloud of corruption from Lary’s misdeeds still hangs over Stonecrest, where five candidates — incumbent Jazzmin Cobble, Diane Adoma, Kirby Frazier Jr., Dele Lowman, and Bernard Smith Jr. — are competing Tuesday to become the city’s next mayor. Cobble is the former Post 3 member of the Stonecrest City Council who defeated Adoma, Frazier, and other candidates in a special election to replace Lary last year.
But the incarcerated former mayor’s scandals aren’t the only thing at the top of voters’ minds. Cobble’s opponents say voters they’ve talked to have lost faith in their local leaders and have been critical of her repeatedly walking out of City Council meetings during the public comment section, when residents have raised questions about audits of the city’s finances and other civic concerns.
“I have witnessed it in person on multiple occasions that the sitting mayor will get up and leave when public comment starts,” Lowman said of Cobble during a Thursday night candidate forum at the New Black Wall Street Market, where Cobble’s absence was noted by several Stonecrest citizens in attendance.
Residents who spoke with Capital B Atlanta in October, however, expressed more concern about what they describe as a lack of government services and economic development in their majority-Black suburb.
Locals like Leola Albert say The Mall at Stonecrest and the New Black Wall Street Market don’t offer the variety of stores they find in other metro Atlanta communities.
Albert, who lives in Stonecrest but works in Norcross, says the city has lots of unused land for new businesses to build on.
“Why can’t we develop that, bring in business to our community?” she said. “I try to spend my money in my community, but some of the things that I like, it’s not here.”
Here’s a closer look at some of the candidates for Stonecrest mayor and what they’d do if elected.
Adoma, 65, is the former Post 5 member of the Stonecrest City Council who was forced to resign in 2019 after running against Lary in the first mayoral election.
The city’s charter bars elected officials from holding other elected or public offices.
Adoma has made Lary’s embezzlement scandal a central focus in her bid to unseat Cobble. For Adoma, the Lary scandal is a matter of government transparency and accountability.
“We have to be accountable for the monies that come into this city,” she told Capital B Atlanta in October. “We have to be transparent.”
Adoma is also the owner of Diane Adoma Consulting LLC, a public information and communications consulting firm. She pointed out that Cobble served more than five years on the City Council and was chairwoman of its finance committee when federal investigators say Lary embezzled COVID relief money to pay off a mortgage on a lakefront home and help pay his son’s college tuition.
Lary and Cobble reportedly clashed over the city’s financial malfeasance during his time in office. An estimated $6.2 million in pandemic aid money was distributed to Stonecrest, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Adoma said Lary is the only one who has been held criminally responsible for how those funds were mismanaged, and Stonecrest residents she’s spoken to on the campaign trail this fall are still angry.
“Most of them are angry about where we are now,” she said. “Some are so angry they’re asking that we dismantle the city.”
If elected, Adoma said she would work to establish a city police department and develop infrastructure to attract new business investment. She and other candidates say crime has deterred more businesses from opening stores in Stonecrest.
“You can’t have economic development without having a safe community because the businesses don’t want to come to an area where they think they may be robbed,” she said.
Cobble, 37, didn’t directly respond to an emailed question about Adoma’s accusations. The former councilwoman said city residents must elect people working to build its communities instead of individuals “that want to tear it apart.”
“Electing people who embody the values that we share in our community is critical to the vitality of our city,” Cobble said via email in October. “The decisions we make today will most likely have its largest impact on future generations that will come live, work and experience all that Stonecrest has to offer.”
Cobble touts helping Stonecrest gain recognition as a Certified City of Ethics through the Georgia Municipal Association and bringing more people and money into the city by securing transit infrastructure funding via improved relationships with MARTA and the Atlanta Regional Commission among her top accomplishments as mayor for the past 16 months or so.
She said the city has made upgrades to its parks — including repaving roads and making other repairs to Salem Park and the Southeast Athletic Complex — during her time in office.
Her goals for a second term include developing a plan to transition policing and public works services to the city, as many residents have requested.
“Under my leadership, the Mayor’s Office will continue to work in lockstep with the city council to build a connected community,” Cobble said via email. “I look forward to all that is yet to come for the City of Stonecrest and with your support to continue as our Mayor, we will achieve that and much more remaining #stonecrestproud!”
Kirby Frazier Jr.
Frazier is a retired U.S. Army veteran and contract management professional with a background in business administration who wants to turn the page on the Lary scandal.
“We can’t be talking about Jason Lary anymore,” he told Capital B Atlanta in October. “Jason Lary’s gone. That’s over.”
The 59-year-old Frazier is also the former president of Atlanta’s National Contract Management Association chapter. The NCMA is a nonprofit that works to advance the interests of contract management professionals and engineers.
As chapter leader in 2015, Frazier said he built partnerships with Atlanta Metropolitan State College, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. General Services Administration, the Veterans Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Frazier said he received an Outstanding Alumni of the Year Award from Strayer University the same year for his efforts. He earned an MBA from Strayer in 2009. He said his background in contract management makes him ideal to negotiate development deals with the business community to create more jobs and places to spend money in Stonecrest.
“Everything starts with a contract,” Frazier said. “You have to understand how these contracts work.”
Bringing better-paying jobs and more affordable housing to Stonecrest would be Frazier’s top priorities as mayor, he said, noting that the two issues are tied together.
He said he supports expanding MARTA in the city and creating other infrastructure projects to bring more people and money into Stonecrest. He also wants to work with HUD and the local nonprofit community to develop programs that address increasing homelessness and offer more low-income housing aid in the city.
Frazier acknowledged he doesn’t have prior government experience, but suggested that’s a plus for city residents who want new leadership following the Lary scandal.
“My leadership with the military and the training I’ve had makes me a leader,” he said. “Does it translate over to city government? I believe it does.”
Lowman, 48, is a recruiting professional who has spent much of her adult life working in and with local government. She currently serves as senior vice president of Gov HR USA, a local government executive recruiting firm.
She’s also a divorced mom of one who has lived in Stonecrest for nearly a decade after moving to the community in 2014 with her then-husband. “We were just looking for a welcoming and affordable place to raise a family,” she said.
Her key policy initiative is establishing a “well-run government,” that has improved standards for ethics and transparency, including showing up and remaining present at city council meetings, communicating more effectively with residents and being more visible in the community than Cobble.
“What we have now is not, in fact, a real city,” Lowman said. “I feel like we have people playing. It’s like children playing house on the playground. We need actual professional standards and best practices so that we have consistently high-quality services and operations and standards.”
Lowman said the other top issues she wants to address as mayor are youth engagement and community development, which includes creating more affordable housing.
She said she would work with government agencies such as HUD to connect Stonecrest residents with grant programs that can help them pay rent and would increase the supply of low-income homes by increasing housing code enforcement fines and penalties against delinquent landlords, creating a disincentive for them to buy up properties.
“We need to aggressively work to try to return as many rental properties to a homeowner-occupied [property] as we can,” Lowman said.
When it comes to combating crime, Lowman said she opposes establishing a police force in Stonecrest, calling it a “pipe dream.”
“Every single community is struggling to find and retain police officers,” she said. “This is not the field of dreams. If we build it does not mean anybody is going to show up.”
Instead, Lowman said she would establish an intergovernmental agreement with DeKalb County to provide better law enforcement. That agreement would include accountability measures determining the number of officers and police vehicles and set standards for response times.
She said she used a similar model during her time working for Broward County government in South Florida.
“Cities would partner with the sheriff department and they would have their own branded vehicles and designated personnel for their city,” Lowman said. “It was like having a police department without all of the startup costs and the liability.”
Bernard Smith Jr.
Smith, 44, is a marketing consultant and a Morehouse College graduate who describes himself as a devout Christian. He is also a married father of three who moved to the Stonecrest area 16 years ago to be closer to his church, he said.
His group’s website cites Leviticus 18:22, which refers to homosexuality as “an abomination,” a view Smith maintains unabashedly.
“God is very firm and direct that being gay is an abomination,” Smith told Capital B Atlanta on Thursday. “That tells you that gay people aren’t going to make it into heaven.”
Smith also said he supports allowing kids to pray in schools and does not believe in the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.
Despite that, he maintains that his “spiritual views” would not affect the way he governs as mayor. He said he wouldn’t discriminate against gay applicants for city jobs, for example, and would not attempt to bar gay people from getting married in Stonecrest.
“Just because I don’t believe in gay marriage doesn’t mean it’s something I’m going to change in my city or try to change in my city,” he said. “That’s the law of the land, and so we’ll abide by the law of the land.”
If elected, Smith said he would tackle crime in Stonecrest by tripling the size of its part-time police force in the short term and establishing a city police department over the next three to four years.
He also wants to reduce gun violence by banning the sale and possession of “lethal ammunition,” which he said excludes rubber bullets and bean bags bullets. He acknowledged that may be a violation of the Second Amendment.
“You’d have to go through some red tape, and I’m willing to take that on,” he said. “This will be the first [law] of its kind to make this city a safe city.”
Smith also wants to spur economic growth in Stonecrest by allowing a group of construction companies led by businessman and New Black Wall Street developer Lecester “Bill” Allen to complete work on a planned retail complex similar to Atlantic Station, which he said would be built near The Mall at Stonecrest.
Smith said Allen’s group had previously worked with Lary on plans to build the complex, but that Cobble hasn’t allowed the plan to proceed since becoming mayor.
“She won’t take their phone calls or anything because they worked for Jason Lary,” Smith said of Cobble. “I worked with them way before then. They’re pretty good people.”
Allen hasn’t responded to a request for comment.
Smith also said he would grant tax incentives to businesses and real estate developers to encourage them to create higher-paying jobs and build more affordable homes in Stonecrest.
He also wants to establish a 2% liquor tax to fund an Alcoholics Anonymous clubhouse built in the city, which he suspects has more liquor stores than most communities in the metro area despite not having an AA clubhouse.
“We have them around Atlanta, but we don’t have any in Stonecrest,” Smith said of AA meeting locations. “Why not have a 2% tax on all the liquor stores and the people who sell liquor?” he said. “If you’re going to be a part of the problem we have in our community, you’re going to be a part of the solution in our community.”