After 30 years, Austell has a new mayor.
Ollie Clemons, formerly mayor pro tem, was sworn in as acting mayor July 1, taking over for longtime Mayor Joe Jerkins.
Jerkins left office at the end of June after he said symptoms of his Parkinson’s disease made it no longer possible to serve. Clemons will serve the remainder of Jerkins’ term – through December – and he has already said he plans to run for a full term as mayor this November.
“He served this city well for the last 30 years,” Clemons said of Jerkins. “And it’s been tough to watch him decline, because he’s always been, even as he’s gotten older, he’s always been in great health. He would get up every morning and do five miles on his treadmill just a few short years ago. … So when he let me know that he was going to retire, I thought, well, whatever is best for him is what I wanted to see. So if that was going to help him through his health challenges, then by all means, I’m wanting him to be where he needed to be.”
Clemons, a retired senior sales executive with the U.S. Postal Service, spoke to the MDJ from his new office in the city’s historic Threadmill complex, which Jerkins helped purchase and restore.
Clemons moved to Austell from Smyrna about 15 years ago. He said he never had any intention of running for office, but was nominated to help form his new neighborhood’s homeowner association.
Because of that, he started regularly attending city meetings, and officials took notice, nominating him for appointed board positions such as on the planning and zoning committee.
After a while, people started asking him when he was going to run for council.
“My answer was, well, let me pray about it and talk it over with my wife, and see if that’s what God would have me to do,” he said. “And if I could be in a place of help to others and God gets the glory, then I’m okay with that. So that’s kind of how I wound up where I am.”
Clemons was first elected to council in 2013, and Jerkins appointed him to be mayor pro tem a year later.
Austell’s mayor does not vote on items except in the case of a tie. Jerkins also assumed the role of city manager, which Clemons is now performing.
He said the switch was made easier because he had been helping fill in for Jerkins more and more over the last few years as his symptoms worsened and because he is already close with much of the city staff.
Clemons said he believes Jerkins left office with the city in very good shape, and he is hoping to continue much in the same mold.
“Our leadership styles certainly differ in ways that I don’t know will be largely recognized, and we both agree upon some major things. … I would love to see how we can build upon what we have, a vibrant community that has experienced some growth and revitalization of downtown areas. And we’ve been intentional about seeing that done. So I would just like to see how we could improve upon our quality of life. And I think those are some of the things that the mayor shared as well.”
Clemons said Jerkins has done a good job attracting residents and businesses to Austell, which he hopes to continue doing, but he said he also wants to make an effort to keep the small-town charm.
“We don’t want to lose our small-town feel and our small-town character, that’s what makes us unique in and of itself,” he said. “Austell, being the smallest city in Cobb, but being geographically placed so that it is positioned closest to the airport, those types of things are attractive to the business community and developers. What you need to do is have smart growth.”
One of the things Jerkins was always quick to praise about the city was its low tax rate, and Clemons said he has no intentions to mess with that.
“It would be my intent to keep our taxes low,” he said. “Residents are, are far more appetized by the tax rate than anything else, and I don’t have any intention right now to (raise taxes).”
In March, the MDJ reported on government audits from the city which showed multiple problems that the auditor called “deficiencies,” including “errors and fraud.”
Clemons said he is aware of those audits and the city has taken steps to remedy the problems behind them.
“We looked into that when the story surfaced,” he said. “And we did a little investigation to find out what the background of that was. I met with auditor and our finance director to find out what was the situation … there were some things and processes that weren’t carried out properly by some employees that are no longer with us.”
Clemons said he is confident that if he is elected for a full term, the next audit will not have the same problems.
Clemons, who is 63, lives in Austell with his wife, Valerie. They have five children and five grandchildren.
Clemons laughed as he described the little ones’ reaction to his new gig.
“They’re excited, they’re excited,” he said “Their excitement helps me. I’m excited as well. I guess I’m humbled by it that, again, I would have never expected to be in this position. … I never cease to be amazed by how God will move in my life.”
Clemons said he has not heard of anybody planning to run against him for mayor, and that no one has announced plans to run for his former council seat, which will also be up for election in November.