Mansfield mayor resigns amid accusations

MANSFIELD — Mayor Estona Middlebrooks resigned at 5 p.m. Thursday, two hours before the City Council was scheduled to hold a work session at the Community Center.

In a resignation letter read to the council and citizens attending the meeting by Mayor Pro-Tem Jefferson Riley, Middlebrooks said her decision was made after much consideration and thought.

“I no longer have the time necessary to devote to this position due to the fact that our business is growing by leaps and bounds and it requires more of my time than it used to,” Riley read from the letter.

Middlebrooks also said her responsibilities as a parent and grandparent, along with her full-time job, weighed into the decision. She and her husband operate a printing business from their home and she works as a flight attendant.

Riley said he and council members would have no official comment Thursday night but would make any necessary comments at the council’s regular meeting at 7 p.m. Monday.

Riley, who will preside over the meetings until the mayor’s position is filled, asked the citizens present if they had any comments, but no one spoke.

Middlebrooks was elected unopposed in 2011 as part-time mayor of the town. In the past year, town residents have leveled accusations of misuse of town funds.

Town resident Whitney Denmark wrote a letter to Riley last month asking that he conduct an audit of the past two years while Middlebrooks was in office and investigate incidences of alleged misuse of funds by the mayor.

“I am very concerned as a taxpayer of Mansfield as well as for the other citizens,” Denmark wrote. “The council is supposed to be there for the citizens and to do the right thing. If there is no trust and the mayor is full of lies and deceit then the situation can only get worse. Questions have got to be answered about her spending and then we need a resolution.”

Denmark and town resident Vicki Cowan also spoke with Newton County District Attorney Layla Zon late last month about their allegations.

Riley said he and the council members notified Middlebrooks last week that they would pursue an investigation or turn the matter over to a Superior Court judge, as required by town charter.

Middlebrooks drew criticism last year after it was learned that she had used the town’s debit card to pay her husband’s $228 Verizon Wireless cell phone bill. Middlebrooks had said it was a mistake and that she had repaid the money.

However, Cowan said there is no record that Middlebrooks actually repaid the funds. She said Thursday night that Middlebrooks claimed she reimbursed the town in cash and placed it in the petty cash drawer at City Hall but did not get a receipt.

In addition, Middlebrooks was paid $2,700 in February as part of insurance claims filed by the town for tornado damages last spring.

Middlebrooks filed the claim for compensation for lost wages after she said she missed 10 days of work over three weeks as a flight attendant for Atlanta Southeast Airlines in the aftermath of a tornado that touched down in the town on April 19.

At the same time, Middlebrooks continued to collect compensation from the town. Mansfield’s mayor is paid $100 per meeting, up to two meetings per month.

Riley said earlier this week that council members were not notified that Middlebrooks had filed the claim.

“It’s my understanding that the council knew nothing about the claim at the time it was filed,” said Riley, who was elected in 2013 and took office in January.

Council members also reportedly questioned why Middlebrooks claimed lost wages for a time period spanning three weeks when most of the tornado damage was cleaned up in a week.

Additionally, Middlebrooks has had problems developing a budget for the town, as required by the charter. Mansfield operates under a strong mayor form of government, which gives the mayor broad powers.

The charter requires that the mayor submit a proposed budget to the council not less than 60 days prior to the beginning of the fiscal year. The town is still working to finalize a 2014 budget.

Following the meeting Thursday, residents said they were relieved and excited about the town’s future.

“I just wanted what was right — what was the honest thing to do,” said Cowan. “There were just so many inconsistencies.”

Denmark said that while Middlebrooks’ resignation is a step in the right direction, she still feels that Middlebrooks took advantage of the town.

“She still needs to be prosecuted,” she said.

Mansfield’s charter requires that an unexpired term be filled by appointment if less than 12 months remains in the term. Since two years remain in Middlebrooks’ term, the position will be filled by election.

Riley said the council will investigate whether the election can coincide with the May 20 primary or if a special election will have to be held.