A local history of government vs. free speech openness


Government agencies and officials are forbidden from regulating or restricting speech or other expression based on its content or viewpoint. That includes our local governments and the Board of Education.

All our local governments are also subject to the Georgia Open Records Act and the Georgia Open Meetings Act, allowing citizens to be present at meetings and to obtain governmental documents upon request.

As you might expect, some elected officials do not like others having free speech. They do not like having their behind-the-scenes communications exposed either. However, it’s the only way to keep the government honest.

Blowing a fuse

Peachtree City Mayor Kim Learnard has been having a conniption fit lately when she was cited for violating state law, the city charter, and being rude to her colleagues. She thinks she can turn the tables by tongue-lashing anyone who dares criticize her.

Efforts to intimidate citizens from speaking out against her are not appreciated.

Learnard calls the factual report that she violated state law a “lie.” Councilman Clint Holland asked the city attorney in a public meeting if the city committee conducting secret meetings on zoning variances with no public notice, no public agendas, and no minutes violated Georgia law. The city attorney confirmed it was a violation (see: July 13 City Council meeting minutes, page 18).

Learnard, knowing the law with 10 years of experience, did not apologize and claimed she did nothing wrong. She can say that those who dare call her out are lying, but meeting minutes differ.

Learnard has resorted to using smear tactics against my column and The Citizen. It was a shock when she began spreading the rumor that my wife and I were divorced, a new low. We are still happily married going on nearly 30 years now. Her jabs at my family members are unnecessary.

Regardless of how pathological things become, elected officials will not unnerve The Citizen or me.

Not our first rodeo

The Citizen has a history of defending the First Amendment and our citizens’ right to know what their government is doing. Likewise, when I began noticing all sorts of incestuous local governmental relationships and wrongdoing, I felt compelled to tell my neighbors in the community so that we could put a stop to it.

Before writing a column, I would write letters to the editor on local issues of concern, and The Citizen and other papers would publish them. Government corruption and neglect were exposed, and the government officials got worried and upset. People started waking up.

Learnard is getting worried and upset after being exposed, making things difficult for her colleagues with less experience, and she is likely to drive city staff members away if she continues.

Superior Court: City Attorney vs Steve Brown & The Citizen

The roaring 90s in Peachtree City was a free-for-all for city officials and connected special interests. The city was the hottest thing going in Georgia and the opportunities for mischief were plentiful. Many people wanted to cash in on the city’s success.

One day, I became aware of what appeared to be an inside job, betraying the citizens for personal gain. We had several local real estate developers intent on forcing their projects into the city whether they worked with our village plan or not.

The prime tactic of the developers was the lawsuit (or sometimes the threat of a lawsuit). They brought fancy lawyers in fine suits who would threaten and cajole the city council, and it was quite a show.

The city council would often battle these lawsuits using an expert real estate attorney referred by the city government’s insurer.

On this particular occasion, the developers sued, and our City Attorney Jim Webb was representing the city in court. It was odd that our city attorney was taking the case because his specialty is medical malpractice and wrongful death cases. Why was the city paying him instead of someone specializing in development issues and constitutional challenges?

The lawsuit appeared to be an open-and-shut case for the city, but it was dragging on. Something was not right.

I discovered that the city attorney representing us against those local developers also had a business relationship with them. They had started a new local bank together, and developers were accessing loans. The conflicts and exploitation were glaringly obvious.

I sent a letter to the editor straightaway to The Citizen describing the situation and asking for something to be done about it. As fast as it could be delivered, I received a threatening demand letter from the city attorney’s law firm demanding that I retract the letter and issue a full apology letter in The Citizen.

Immediately, I put a letter together and sent it to The Citizen. The second letter listed the details of the dirty deeds, calling out the city and the city attorney.

The city attorney sued both me and The Citizen. It was a classic SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) lawsuit. I was now in a fight against an entire law firm.

The lawsuit became a rallying point for local citizens against local government corruption. Citizens began demanding that the city attorney be removed. Finally, the Bob Lenox administration was forced to relent, and the city attorney exited, replacing him with his law partner (you just cannot make this stuff up).

On several occasions, the new city attorney and law partner of the former city attorney made comments in public meetings directed at me which many of us found quite threatening.

The Citizen reported on those public comments from the law partner, “This has got to stop,” [Rick] Lindsey said, referring to “additional letters from this same small group of authors that again implied some wrongdoing.”

Lindsey continued, “Someone has to bring a halt to this type of inappropriate journalism and the slurring of people with excellent reputations,” Lindsey told the council and about 50 members of the public at the meeting. “This litigation will be lengthy and expensive,” he added. “However, we are prepared to fight, and fight we will” (see: https://archive.thecitizen.com/archive/main/archive-000308/news/fp-02.html). (Note: It’s a standard tactic, Mayor Kim Learnard is using such accusations now against The Citizen and me.)

The court proceedings went on for quite a while. Eventually, we were prepared to barrage the former city attorney in deposition with many pointed questions about his dealings in several different controversies. Yes, there were others (see: https://archive.thecitizen.com/archive/main/archive-000308/news/fp-01.html).

We were going to peel back that nasty onion of local government corruption under oath and bring in all who were accomplices but we never got the chance. The former city attorney rapidly retreated from the lawsuit right before he was going to be deposed.

The hapless surrender was a marker of things to come. The citizens of 25 years ago were no longer willing to tolerate government or special interest egos and corruption.

I commend The Citizen Editor Cal Beverly for taking a stand against corruption and not backing down. He could have easily pulled the newspaper out of the lawsuit by distancing himself from me and my letters. Instead, Beverly fought to have the truth exposed.

The lawsuit cost me approximately $10,000 to defend myself. I was filling out an application to put a second mortgage on my home for more legal fees when my attorney called me and said the plaintiff retreated hastily in the face of stiff opposition.

Our Godzilla: Photocircuits

When my family first moved to Peachtree City, we were assured there was only clean industry present. That turned out to be another Development Authority of Peachtree City lie.

I later discovered that the industrial facility adjacent to my Planterra Ridge subdivision was not only using hazardous chemicals by the tanker truckload, but they were some of the worst hazardous chemicals imaginable.

Photocircuits Corp., a privately held printed circuit board manufacturer headquartered in New York, was the adjacent facility and the largest employer in Fayette County at the time.

The more I found out the worse it got. Photocircuits had a horrible environmental safety record in New York. They had problems in Peachtree City too. Some of the chemicals in use required at least a seven-mile radius evacuation zone in the event of a hazmat event.

How in the heck could the city government allow a subdivision to be constructed near such a facility?

According to a city council member I spoke to, the Peachtree City Development Corporation was struggling and needed to convert some industrial land to residential to make some quick cash. I was speechless and wondered how the city’s Fire Chief could not speak up when the rezoning was approved.

It turned out I was wrong. Fire Department Chief Gerald Reed asked the city council not to do it. I researched the meeting minutes and found where he fiercely complained and pointed out all the horrible scenarios.

The city council approved the subdivision anyway over the Fire Chief’s professional and factual objections, putting hundreds of families at risk!

I always remind people never to trust the government. That was one of the city council’s most negligent actions I have encountered.

To make matters worse, I was given a copy of correspondence between the state government and the Peachtree City Mayor, County Commission Chairman, and our Representative in the Georgia House of Representatives.

The state had cited Photocircuits for dangerously high levels of pollutants well above the legal standard coming out of their stacks. The other correspondence was the local elected officials asking the state regulators to take it easy on the polluting Photocircuits and remove the punishments. They cared nothing about the people living and working nearby.

Instead of packing up and moving, I decided to stay and take on the largest employer in the county. Many of my Planterra Ridge neighbors joined in the fight.

I wrote many lengthy letters to The Citizen on Photocircuits’ horrible environmental record and the dangers faced in Peachtree City. Eventually, enough pressure was applied, and the city council had no choice but to listen and respond appropriately. State regulators were also keeping a close watch.

The egos of the elected officials and the management of the county’s largest employer began to shrink.

By the end of 2004, Photocircuits had laid off around 500 employees just in time for Christmas. Soon after, they disappeared entirely.

It was truly a shame that the citizens had to lead and demonstrate moral and ethical behavior and force the city and the corporation to act responsibly. We should all be grateful to The Citizen for publishing our letters disclosing the problems. Our community is a lot safer because of it.

Development Authority of Peachtree City

In the history of Fayette County, there has probably not been a more scandalous bunch of self-serving, half-baked marauders than the long-tenured members of the Development Authority of Peachtree City (DAPC).

I loved the significant number of older accomplished men of character, courage, intelligence, and civic-mindedness in Peachtree City. They were men that I looked up to and they set a great example for a young guy in his 30s. The development authority members were the exact opposite.

Authority members acted as though they owned the DAPC and were above the law. They were at the center of numerous controversies. I began calling them out on their misdeeds and letting the public know what was going on in letters to the editor of The Citizen.

DAPC had what I called the “20+ year club,” as a host of appointed members kept getting reappointed for 20 years or more. They were good friends with Mayor Bob Lenox which probably kept them concreted into the positions.

I read all the DAPC minutes. It was easy to connect the dots and see the games they were playing until they went months with no meeting minutes at all, a clear violation. They later made up meeting minutes. They were being exposed.

Not wanting to face the consequences, some DAPC members were smart enough to jump ship as the citizens read the letters to the editor. A recent appointment to the DAPC investigated my claims of dishonesty within the authority. When he saw that I was correct, he resigned and submitted a list of major issues in addition to the ones that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and I had previously cited (see: https://archive.thecitizen.com/archive/main/archive-030924/news/fp-01.html).

There was a huge list of deceitfulness: accounting so bad that the GBI said it was impossible to see what they were doing, lots of non-disclosure, large secret loans with banks (no votes, no records), conflicts of interest, self-dealing on contracts, poor management of facilities, hidden cash flow problems, no votes on large contracts, commingling funds, non-payment to vendors, and more.

The good old boy 20+ year club was done, and I could not have done it without The Citizen allowing me to make the wrongful deeds public. When I started writing about the DAPC, I was called every name in the book by the DAPC members, the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce, city officials, and others.

While handing me his resignation, the authority member told me he tried to get the other members to do the right thing, and they rebuffed him. Those other members did not know I was having conversations with the FBI and they were saved from what may have been a much worse fate.

In 2004, my administration inserted a new panel of DAPC members that essentially helped close the DAPC down, and the next administration formally terminated the authority for good. The council members of the Logsdon administration remarked that they had closed a dark chapter in the city’s history.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Jack Smith and his bank

Yes, another politico in bed with a bank.

Fayette County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jack Smith was quietly leading a local bank with a loan portfolio largely of real estate development loans.

It was the perfect setup. The big guy in the county government who promotes and votes on certain development interests also benefits from loaning the developer capital for the project. Or, maybe, it could be the other way around with the developer coming to the bank first initiating a large loan contingent upon the rezoning or the variance being approved by the board of commissioners. Either way, it stinks, badly.

Additionally, Smith was leading the charge not to build the number one priority project in the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) approved by the voters, but instead was pushing the lesser priority West Fayetteville Bypass, often referred to as “the road to nowhere.”

The West Fayetteville Bypass route took an obscure path through many farmlands in the center of the county. Years before the Steele administration in Fayetteville and the Dunn administration in the county reached an agreement along with the Fayette County Development Authority to build a huge number of single-family homes on that vast expanse of land with commercial shopping centers at the frontage of Highway 54.

Is it not a stretch to wonder if Smith was pushing the West Fayetteville Bypass because of the massive potential for real estate development loans from building all those new subdivisions?

I exposed the whole shebang through writing in The Citizen. To say there was a lot of citizen taxpayer outrage over the ethical explosion is a gigantic understatement.

Every member of the Smith administration was eventually voted out of office.

During the candidate qualifying period, I called the Board of Elections every day to see who had qualified to run against Smith. To the last day of qualifying, no one had signed up to run against Smith.

With around five hours remaining, I qualified for the election. I could not bear to see Smith run unopposed after causing so much turmoil.

Running a last-minute campaign on a shoestring budget, I won the countywide election.

The winner in the other race, Allen McCarty, a political newcomer, voted in opposition with me on every vote to keep the West Fayetteville Bypass moving forward, losing 3-2 every time. By the time the other three newcomers joined McCarty and me two years later, the bypass had been constructed.

Looking to make lemonade out of a bypass lemon, I met with new then-Fayetteville Mayor Greg Clifton and Fayette County Development Authority to create an entirely different plan for the area, taking the massive residential out and replacing it with corporate headquarters and clean industry.

Peachtree City had squandered its chance for significant growth in that sector by building subdivisions and shopping centers on land formerly slated for corporate uses. The area around the West Fayetteville Bypass had the best potential to keep providing great jobs for our residents and was revenue-positive.

Our first landing was the Pinewood Studios project. I will tell you that story in another column, but it would not have happened if The Citizen refused to print the letters exposing the serious issues.

2012 Regional Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST)

Fayette County is part of the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), a regional governance body on transportation, aging services, etc. At the time, the other counties in ARC were Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Douglas, Cobb, Cherokee, Henry, Clayton, and Rockdale.

Fulton and DeKalb created the Metropolitan Atlanta Transit Authority (MARTA) in 1971. By 2011, MARTA had gigantic cash flow problems. Ridership was very low, and maintenance of the system was neglected.

Elected officials in Fulton and DeKalb did not want to increase their transit tax. They developed a plan to create a regional transportation sales tax (TSPLOST) referendum through the state legislature and force all the ARC counties to fund the MARTA system.

The whole TSPLOST referendum was a $6 billion scam. More than half of the funding was appropriated to mass transit when only seven percent of our commuting population used transit.

To make matters worse, all of the promised mass transit projects would not be built, and they were lying to the metro citizens. The $3.4 billion would only cover studies, land acquisition, engineering, and some buses, but none of the big rail projects. Most of the road funds were going north of Interstate 20.

Only two elected officials in metro Atlanta opposed the regional scam, DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson and me.

The committee pushing the TSPLOST was one of the most powerful ever assembled, consisting of Gov. Nathan Deal, Speaker of the House David Ralston, all the Fortune 500 CEOs, all the Chambers of Commerce, all metro mayors, and all metro county commission chairmen (even Fayette’s Chairman Herb Frady).

As for the opposition, it started with nine of us gathered around a kitchen table. Although small in number, we had the facts and the data on our side.

I was writing letters to the editor in The Citizen and the referendum opposition op-eds in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Through those writings, the opposition grew and more volunteers came aboard.

The pro-referendum committee had millions of dollars and our opposition had about $20,000 and the ability to create a solid narrative using facts. We challenged the pro-referendum side to debates in every county in the ARC. I drafted op-eds for local newspapers and appeared on news radio and television news broadcasts.

Our small band was so dominant in the debates that the pro-referendum committee hired an “expert” from the Brookings Institute to debate for them, and they still suffered.

The results of the voting were overwhelming. The referendum was defeated in every ARC county, even the two MARTA counties. The best the powerful elites could do was 37 percent of the vote.

I have won a lot of causes but saving my hometown metro Atlantan taxpayers from a $6 billion tax scam was probably the most satisfying. The Citizen and other metro community newspapers were the backbone of getting the facts out to metro voters.

So, we keep trying

Every March, we celebrate “Sunshine Week,” a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools, and others interested in the public’s right to know.

When you need information on keeping your government accountable, I suggest you look at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation at https://gfaf.org/ or their videos on YouTube.

You can be one of the citizens who helps keep the government accountable. I hope you will accept the challenge.

We will always have our share of elected officials like Mayor Learnard and others who attempt to intimidate or obfuscate to squelch our First Amendment rights. Use your power in the voting booth to choose the candidates who favor government transparency and listen to the constituents.

We are fortunate to have The Citizen in Fayette County. You can subscribe to The Citizen’s weekly email with news happening in your area by going to https://thecitizen.com/. Look for the email newsletter box on the lower right side of the home page.

[Brown is a former mayor of Peachtree City and served two terms on the Fayette County Board of Commissioners. You can read all his columns by clicking on his photo below.]


  1. Just a few comments to add some clarity in spots.

    Yes, there were a lot of troubles with councils in the 90s. I was a Councilman when Logsdon Was mayor, a real rodeo on big subjects like West Village.

    SANY wanted a gated compound for all Chinese workers. Logsdon said yes, as mayor I said no compound and no all Chinese.

    The DAPC of the 90s was a disaster. They pushed projects such as the tennis center, which to this day has been a money pit.

    But the DAPC, when I was MAYOR, was the opposite. Even severely underfunded still worked still did good work for the city until disbanded by the three on counsel tried to seize control of it resulting in no more economic development.

    When I was mayor citizen input was welcome.

    But even then Learnard tried to take control.

    We need citizen voices at meetings, citizen voices on authorities and committees, not the voices of only council w what they the deem share.

    FYI, I have been a resident for 37 years.

  2. Thank you for your perseverance bringing light to bear on the dark corners of politics!

    May this Mayor no longer hide – except in her basement!

    I lament the PTC I thought I moved to 28 years ago. Much as I lament the decline of our country. The left produces any thing but progress. Like you I will not just sit and watch. Vigilance is the price of freedom.

  3. Steve, as residents of PTC for 33 years, my family appreciates your hard work and dedication. I think we will face some tough challenges in the future, but what’s important is keep fighting the good fight. I recall all the events you mentioned today, but the back-room efforts often saved the city. Thank you!