It was supposed to be a simple appointment and swearing-in ceremony at the Augusta Commission on Tuesday, until controversy over past racist remarks and the use of the n-word erupted.
Commissioner Bill Fennoy objected to the appointment of Commissioner-elect John Clarke to fill the unexpired term of the late Grady Smith, who died last month. Clarke was to take over Smiths Super District 10 post in January, and Commissioner Ben Hasan made a motion for him to fill out Smiths term and be sworn in immediately.
But Fennoy said he could not support it because of Facebook posts Clarke made years before that contained the n-word, a word Fennoy repeatedly used from the dais, drawnig audible gasps from the audience.
Referring to him as “James Clarke,” Fennoy said he was the one “who lied and said somebody hacked his Facebook page and he doesnt know how it got there.” Fennoy used the racial slurs in regard to what he said was Clarkes Facebook post about a 2014 shooting in Ferguson, Mo., in which a white police officer shot a black teenager, a case that sparked riots and protests there.
Fennoy was the only one to vote against the appointment, and Clarke was sworn in with Smiths daughters, Catherine Smith McKnight and Ashley Kelley, by his side. He received a standing ovation from the audience and the commission, minus Fennoy.
Calling it “a bittersweet day for me,” Clarke said he never celebrated his victory because “it was full of controversy. So be it.”
He has asked for forgiveness and has said that though he does not remember writing the post he takes full responsibility for it. He said he was going through a dark time in his life then as his wife was dying and he turned to alcohol.
“I will not go there again,” he said. “I am who I am and I love people. It is not a white thing. It is not a black thing. Its the right thing.”
“For the ones that didnt and still have hardness in their hearts, I will still work just as hard for you because thats who I am,” he said.
Afterward, Mayor Pro Tem Mary Davis called Fennoys remarks “a total embarrassment for the city. He was completely out of line and showed exactly how an elected official should not behave in public.”
Commissioner-elect Brandon Garrett, who watched the ceremony with his wife and children, was upset that they had to witness that and to have to explain to his children what Fennoy said.
“We dont allow that word to be used around our children or in our household,” he said. “It is clearly unacceptable.”
In the parking lot of the Municipal Building, Garrett asked Fennoy whether he could speak to him and explain why he found Fennoys use of the n-word objectionable. But what started as a civil conversation soon turned to shouting.
“You dont tell me whats uncalled for,” Fennoy screamed at him. “You dont tell me nothing. Who are you to tell me?”
Commissioners Dennis Williams and Sammie Sias intervened to break it up. Clarke stood by silently and then headed toward his car, which was parked in the public lot and not in the spaces reserved for commissioners.
AUGUSTA, GA (WFXG) – John Clarke was sworn in as a Richmond County Commissioner Tuesday afternoon. The late Grady Smiths daughters stood alongside Clarke as he took his oath.
It has been a difficult few weeks for the Commission, with the loss of Grady Smith back in October and the death of Andrew Jefferson just this week. Mayor Hardie Davis, Jr. spoke at the Commission meeting, saying that the most important thing anyone can have is the gift of family. When we all leave this place, no one will replace us, said Mayor Davis.
Only one commissioner objected to Clarkes appointment: Bill Fennoy. He refused to stand and welcome Clarke to the Commission, citing a racist Facebook post allegedly made by the newly-appointed Commissioner back in 2014, years before he started a career in public service.
The post referenced the protests in Ferguson, Missouri and reportedly referred to African Americans with a racial slur. Commissioner Fennoy quoted some of that post in the meeting.
People will look at me and say that Im wrong because of what I said but accept and forgive him because of what he said.
Commissioner Fennoy said that post doesnt look good for the city and believes it says a lot about the people he works with. Fennoy also said he voted no because he didnt have input on the late commissioner Grady Smiths replacement.
Commissioner Clarke declined to talk to me on camera about the exchange – but he did say hes looking forward to serving.
I really wanna work on south Richmond County Center, downtown, riverfront, transit. Theres so many things that we can work on together…but its also gonna take citizens working with us to make this happen,” Clarke told FOX 54.
#HappeningNow: District 10s New Commissioner John Clarke said of the controversial, #racist FB post: I will never go there again & says hell work hard for his critics.Commissioner Fennoy refuses to stand when mayor tells everyone to do so to welcome Clarke..@WFXGFOX54 pic.twitter.com/8Kx9RDr6in
Commissioner Clarke has spoken about the Facebook post in the past, saying in May 2018, I can honestly say I dont remember writing those insensitive and hurtful words but I take full responsibility for them, they were on my page… That dark time in my life I turned to alcohol to deal with the pain that was caused seeing the love in my life literally dying in my arms.
At his appointment Tuesday, Clarke again spoke about the post, saying he will work hard for his critics. I will never go there again.
Both commissioners said they wont let their feelings towards each other affect the progress in Richmond County. Thats a good thing because Commissioner Clarkes appointment to replace Grady Smith goes until the end of the year. His official term will last four years.