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County employee terminated for inappropriate conduct

    Bulloch County Commissioners upheld the county manager's decision to terminate a county employee after a day-long appeal Thursday.
    Maurice McDowell, who was the county's special projects director, was fired earlier this month for reported misuse of county cell phones and for inappropriate conduct involving another county employee - the county clerk - which witnesses said took place during work hours and in the work place.
    The county clerk, Marcia Collins, resigned from her position earlier this month.
    Chatham County attorney Gwendolyn Waring represented McDowell while county attorney Charles Brown represented Couch.  Millen and Screven County attorney Hubert Reeves acted as moderator.
    Brown opened arguments citing McDowell's violation of county policies regarding cell phone usage, but Waring countered with the statement that county officials were unfair in firing McDowell without a preliminary disciplinary warning.
    Couch took the stand as the initial witness, and told Bulloch County Commissioners McDowell used the county cell phone issued to him for work purposes to make and receive excessive personal calls. He also spoke about McDowell's "conduct unbecoming ... disruptive of the work place... that was inappropriate and unacceptable."
    Couch also told commissioners McDowell did not notify county leaders when the Department of Community Affairs froze payments of a community development block grant that was to be used to fund improvements to roads and drainage at Lake Collins near Portal. However, neither Couch nor other commissioners delved into details of the issue Thursday, except to say Couch discovered the problem after firing McDowell.
    Couch said other employees began complaining about McDowell spending an unusual and unwarranted amount of time in Collins' office, as well as Collins spending a great deal of time in McDowell's office. While Collins did perform an occasional secretarial service for McDowell, who has no secretary, the time spent together began drawing suspicions.
    The meetings became more common and lengthy, and "I can't think of any work reasons they met so long," he said.
    Whenever anyone needed Collins, she could be found in McDowell's office, he said.

Meetings discouraged
    Collins was promoted from deputy clerk to commission clerk when long-time clerk Evelyn Wilson retired in December, and Couch said he spoke to Collins about her change of duties and their importance, as well as telling her the meetings between her and McDowell had been noticed. He asked her to " discourage those types of visitations," he said.
    And investigations into cell phone records showed excessive use of the phone for personal use, including an unusual number of calls to Collins and to another county employee, a Bulloch County Sheriff's deputy, Kim Khan, he said.
    Brown listed a number of the calls, pointing out that many were in excess of 30 minutes each, and were often at odd hours, including late at night and early in the mornings.
    Couch also talked about a county retreat where witnesses saw Collins and McDowell sitting near each other, with  their legs wrapped around each other. Collins is married to Bulloch County Sheriff's Deputy Greg Collins.
    Three commissioners noticed McDowell's frequent visits to Collins' office and expressed concern to Couch, he said. Other workers complained about the two socializing and not getting work done, he said. "There was an appearance to coworkers that there was a disruption in the work place and it was beginning to have an impact on morale."
    Rumors began spreading and even affected those at the Bulloch County Sheriff's Department, he said.
    Warning argued with the moderator about his decision not to allow phone records of other employees during the hearing, and said McDowell and Collins met frequently for work purposes including the county's safety committee, which McDowell chaired and Collins was secretary.

Other witnesses
    Bulloch County Commission Chairman Garrett Nevil took the stand and said he saw McDowell in Collins' office several times a day. He also talked about seeing what he deemed inappropriate behavior by the two at the county retreat. "I noticed intimate contact between Maurice and Marcia," he said. "We were in the same room with  them. They were sitting at  the table, legs together, rubbing in an intimate fashion."
    Evelyn Wilson testified Collins seemed uninterested in her coaching her to assume the duties of county clerk. And often, when she went to Collins' office, she was not there. When she was, McDowell was usually there, she said.
    Wilson also spoke of catching Collins giving McDowell a massage in her office, but  that she did not tell anyone.
    "Do you know of any reliable reason for McDowell to be in Collins'  office every day? Brown asked. "No," Wilson said.
    She also said other employees complained of the appearance that Collins and McDowell did not have work to do. "It appeared ... they had a lot of  time she didn't have anything to do," she said. "I saw a lot of wasted time." Other workers resented the time the two spent socializing with each other, she said.
    Waring asked why Collins was promoted when her job performance was unacceptable. Wilson said "I think sometimes people can fool people, and I think Ms. Collins is very good at it."
    Bulloch County 911 Director Kelly Barnard also testified, talking about seeing Collins in McDowell's office often, and seeing the physical exchange at the county retreat as well.
    Barnard also told commissioners she saw McDowell with makeup on his face, and Collins missing her characteristic lipstick and her makeup wiped away after the two were found together in his office.
    She said McDowell's feelings for Collins were "evident" in the work place.
    Donita Griffith, another 911 employee, also testified. McDowell's office was located in the 911 center.
    If no one could find McDowell, they would either find him in Collins' office or " she knew where to find him," she said.
    The unusual amount of time  the two spent together attracted other worker's attention, she said.
    Griffith told commissioners she caught the pair in McDowell's office in a kiss, and afterward McDowell called her on her cell phone, worried that she would report the incident.
    But Waring called witnesses who denied the two were misbehaving.
    
Witnesses defend McDowell, discredit others
    Terry Wooten, county maintenance, and Heather Banks McNeal, county human resources director, each said McDowell was not involved with Collins. Greg Collins, Marcia Collins' husband, testified that the allegations are " basically rumors. There is no fact to them."
    Marcia Collins took the stand next, denying any "inappropriate relationship" with McDowell, but admitting visiting him often.
    McDowell said Griffith's comments were due to rebuffed advances she made towards him and said he wanted his job back.
    Brown questioned Bulloch County Sheriff's deputy Kim Khan about an inordinate amount of calls she made to and received from McDowell on his county phone. Brown had documentation that the two exchanged 17 calls in an eight-day period, some before 7:30 a.m., and 13 calls over the next five days.
    McDowell denied knowing whose number was on the records, although he had made several calls to that number, but Khan admitted the number was hers. McDowell claimed he was talking to her about the jail expansion project, but Brown asked what a courthouse security deputy would know about the project.
    In closing, Waring asked commissioners to give McDowell his job back and said the way he was treated was unfair. Brown defended the county manager's decision to terminate McDowell and said he " indicted himself" by claiming he did not know whose number he'd called. By his behavior, and by never telling county leaders about the block grant issue, McDowell 'Breached trust," he said.
    After a brief deliberation, commissioners reconvened and Commissioner George Jackson moved that the county "uphold the County Manager's decision to terminate Mr. McDowell." The vote was unanimous.

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