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Cairo is currently a city without a mayor after Booker Gainor qualified to run for the District 173 seat in the Georgia House of Representatives on Friday. At Monday night’s city council meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Cox presided and he will continue to serve as the council’s presiding officer until a special election can be held on May 19.
Former mayor Gainor attended Monday’s meeting of the council finance committee and was present for the city council meeting. Gainor had received unofficial word Friday afternoon that his qualifying for the state office resulted in his automatic resignation as Cairo mayor, but he said the first official notification he received was moments before the council meeting began.
Prior to the start of the meeting, Thomas L. Lehman, attorney for the city council, shared with Gainor a statement that he had emailed to the former mayor early Monday morning, an email Gainor denied receiving.
Lehman admitted he had erred in his research from which he concluded that Gainor could seek election to the Georgia House of Representatives and remain the city’s mayor.
Gainor questioned how Lehman could have made such a mistake after having served as the city’s attorney for more than 30 years. The former mayor also questioned Lehman about why he was just hearing from him on Monday when Lehman knew about the issue Friday afternoon.
“It’s a fine time to try and educate me after the fact,” Gainor said.
The mayor provided the press with copies of email correspondence he and Lehman had on Feb. 10, which was a follow-up to a phone conversation the two had on Feb. 7
Gainor said that he had contacted Lehman in advance to determine if there would be an issue in him seeking election to the state house or the state senate. After not hearing back from Lehman, Gainor emailed the city attorney on March 4 seeking a written opinion, which Lehman issued that same day.
In his written opinion, Lehman said he found nothing in the city charter, the city’s code of ordinances or in state law that would prohibit Gainor from remaining mayor while qualifying to run for the state legislature.
Ultimately, last Friday Lehman was provided a copy of a section of the Georgia Constitution he had not read that does prohibit an elected official from qualifying to run for another office when the term for the position sought begins more than 30 days prior to the end of the present term that the elected official already holds.
After his brief conversation with Lehman, Gainor collected his belongings and took a seat in the audience of the council chamber. Lehman was recognized by Mayor Pro Team Cox shortly after the meeting was called to order and the city attorney read the statement he had written to Gainor and released to Chris Addleton, Cairo city manager, and The Cairo Messenger on Monday morning.
Lehman’s statement is as follows:
“I wish to apologize to Booker Gainor and all other parties having an interest in the repercussions of his decision to qualify as a candidate for Georgia State Representative. Booker had asked me to review the implications of his offering for state office on his elected position as Mayor. I reviewed the City of Cairo Charter and the Code of Ordinances. Also, I reviewed Article III of the Georgia Constitution concerning qualification and membership of the Georgia General Assembly and Title 36 of Georgia Law that concerns municipal corporations in Georgia. I found no conflict with the Mayor offering as a candidate.
I have become aware that Article II of the Georgia Constitution concerning Voting and Elections contains within Paragraph V, under Section II the following: any office held by an elected official becomes vacant if that person qualifies for any other state, county or municipal office or office of United States representative or senator if the term of that office begins more than 30 days prior to the present term that the elected official is serving.
I am truly sorry for giving Mr. Gainor the erroneous information. His concern for Cairo and its citizens are deeply appreciated by me and I encourage and support his continued involvement in public office within our community and beyond.
“I feel really rotten about this,” Lehman said Monday night. He added, “It was a stupid error on my part. I did my research, but I should have reached out to more people. I had a certain feeling there was something there, but I could not find that. I am very sorry I gave Booker the wrong information. I have been impressed by his concern for Cairo and its citizens.”
Lehman told the council that a special election for mayor to fill the unexpired term of Gainor could be held May 19 in conjunction with the general primary election that takes place on that same day. Qualifying could be held as little as 10 days prior to the special election or up to 30 days prior to the election, but must be open for prospective candidates to qualify for two and one half days, according to Lehman.
“I feel like two cents about the whole thing,” Lehman said.
“This is an unfortunate incident, but we still have to attend to the citizens’ business,” Mayor Pro Tem Cox said. Cox then recognized the former mayor.
“I apologize for putting y’all in this situation. I thought I went through everything the best way. I consulted a 30-year veteran attorney who said I could run and I did the same with my employer with the school board,” Gainor said.
The former mayor said he had no issue with the law and would abide by all laws. He encouraged the council to keep “pressing forward and doing the good work for the citizens of Cairo.”
As state representative, if elected, Gainor pledged to work with the council in any way possible. The former mayor said he was not going anywhere and would not be retreating from public service, he would just have a different title.
Councilman Demario Byrden voiced his displeasure with the turn of events. “It sounds like a set up from the beginning,” Byrden said. He said that if people had issues with Gainor they should vote the next election to replace him, but he said that Gainor’s passion had offended some “people.”
Byrden, too, said he did not have an issue with the state law, but his issue was with how this situation had been handled. He said that Gainor was his friend and he was upset that his term as Cairo’s first black mayor had been cut short. Councilman Byrden also questioned why others knew about the legal issue last week, but that the former mayor did not learn about it until moments before the meeting began.
Gainor said he would be focusing his energy on not only serving the citizens of Cairo and Grady County, but also citizens of Decatur and Thomas counties as their state representative. He was the lone candidate to qualify as a Democrat and as the Democratic nominee he will face incumbent Republican Representative Darlene Taylor in November for the District 173 seat. Taylor was the one Republican to qualify and is automatically her party’s nominee.
On Tuesday, Gainor issued the following statement to The Messenger, “I would like for my journey to be a pillar of hope that inspires and empowers others to never give up and continue to live above the status quo. Whatever your goal or dream is, I humbly ask that you go for it!”
“Booker, we appreciate your passion and know you will continue to be an active part of this community. I hope you will advise us where you see we need it and we will be looking forward to the Easter Egg Drop,” Mayor Pro Tem Cox said.
Gainor, who identified his address Monday night as 365 Humble Avenue S.E., qualified with state officials with an address of 1224 U.S. Hwy. 84 West.
Cairo city manager Chris Addleton said the council will vote at its March 23 meeting to issue the call for the special election. The winner of the special election will serve out the remainder of Gainor’s term, which expires on Dec. 31, 2021.