Two Statesboro city councilmen are concerned the city decided to reinstate former City Clerk and Director of Finance and Administration Judy McCorkle despite council members previously stating their intent to let her termination stand.
Council members Travis Chance and Will Britt sat down with the Statesboro Herald Thursday to discuss the actions leading up to McCorkle’s termination last September and her reinstatement this past Tuesday.
“I think the public deserves to know,” Chance said. “I think they deserve to know the truth and I think they deserve to get more than a vague answer like ‘That’s a personnel issue’ or, ‘I can’t answer that.’ Yes we can. The public voted us in so we should be able to answer their questions.”
“We should have open government,” Britt said. "I’m very tired of these behind doors actions and I’m tired of the public only hearing bits and pieces and not fully understanding. We are representatives of the city and the citizens.”
At their June 17, 2008 meeting, the city council voted 5-0 to hire Shane Haynes as city manager. He started with the city July 1, but by then the troubles with the city clerk had already begun.
“When Shane first started, basically Judy treated him as her assistant,” Chance said. “It was, ‘I know what I’m doing. You’re young, you don’t know, we’re going to do it my way.' She stopped showing up for meetings, she stopped giving him information. If there was something he needed it was pretty much ‘Get it yourself.’”
Several city employees backed up the claims by the two councilmen. Speaking on condition of anonymity, citing fears of reprisal, several employees said she refused to attend numerous mandatory weekly department head meetings and failed to provide information to the city manager when it was requested. Each said she talked about Haynes behind his back, complaining about his youth and lack of experience and saying he wouldn’t be with the city for very long. McCorkle even packed up her belongings and walked out of a city council meeting in the middle of a presentation by Haynes, an employee said.
“This was a conversation between her and a group of people. She questioned his ability to do the job,” said one city employee. “(Claims of insubordination) were clearly on the mark. She made it real clear she was not going to submit to his authority.”
After the difficulties continued, according to Chance and Britt, Haynes brought up the tension with McCorkle to the mayor and city council. During an executive session held July 15, 2008, Chance said Haynes chose not to attend the session so that the council members would feel uninhibited to discuss the matter at length. The mayor was not in attendance.
“The conversation was pretty clear,” Britt said. “In talking, we said, ‘You gotta work with her, you gotta figure something out. You gotta give her some time and you got to try and work with her.' (Councilman) Gary Lewis even used a hand gesture and said, ‘You got to give her some time, you got to start all over, but if you can’t work with her, you got to do what you got to do.’”
Lewis, however, said difficulties between Haynes and McCorkle were never brought up in an executive session prior to her termination.
“No sir, nothing. It was never brought up at all. Never, never, never,” Lewis said Saturday. “We were not aware of anything like that that was going on. We should have been informed.”
After the meeting was over, Chance said it was clear the council supported the city manager.
“At the same time, during that meeting every single councilman said, ‘If Shane cannot work with Judy, he has the authority as city manager to do whatever is necessary,’” Chance said. “That night, Shane got a phone call from every single councilman and said, ‘Shane, we had a meeting and I just want you to know you’re our guy and whatever you decide to do, we’re behind you.’”
Ultimately, the conflict between Haynes and McCorkle could not be resolved and Haynes decided to terminate her in September. At the time, Haynes said he was trying to build a cohesive team at the city.
"At some point you need to make a decision that you have to have everybody on board,” Haynes said in September. “If you can’t get everybody on board, you have to make decisions and unfortunately, there are tough decisions like this that have to be made.”
Councilman Joe Brannen said he supported Haynes’ decision in September.
“At that time, I would say that we did because we didn’t take any action otherwise,” Brannen said.
Reaction to firing
Reaction to McCorkle’s termination was mixed. Brannen said after her firing that the news caught him off guard.
“It’s mostly news to me today (Monday). I understand there were some issues, but was not aware of anything this immediate,” Brannen said. “Yes, I’d had to say it was somewhat of a surprise.”
Though he did not say so last September, Lewis said Saturday he did not agree with Hayne’s decision.
“No I did not. I feel it was improperly done. It should have been done in a different way,” Lewis said. “I think she was taken out for personal reasons from another councilman.”
One employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, described a big difference in attitude at the city after McCorkle’s termination.
“Before and after it was like night and day,” the employee said. “It was like the weight of the world had been lifted off the shoulders of the employees at city hall. People didn’t work in fear of losing their jobs. People didn’t work in fear of having to answer to a director of finance/city clerk who thought she was the city manager. It was like being strangled and the hands coming off your throat and being able to breathe again. I’ve never seen a corporate culture that changed so drastically in the before and after based on one employee’s departure.”
Another employee said that McCorkle could be a valuable asset to the city in her capacity as city clerk, but she should not be back with the same level of authority she had before because it would only cause continued turmoil between her and the city manager.
After she was fired, McCorkle hired Atlanta attorney Gerald Weber, who told the city of McCorkle’s intent to sue if a settlement could not be reached.
McCorkle claimed her termination was not done through proper channels, citing the personnel policy of the city which states, “The city manager may not terminate a department head without first discussing the matter in an executive session.”
City Attorney Sam Brannen said it was debatable whether or not the city manager has the sole authority to hire and fire department heads, due to conflicting wording in the city’s charter and personnel policy. Brannen said that was part of the reason why he believed the city was vulnerable to possible litigation.
“There was not any proper authorization,” Brannen said. “It was decided that she would be given some period of time to see if things could be worked out. Nobody authorized her firing.”
Britt said he believes the city council should not be in the business of hiring and firing city employees, outside of the city manager.
“We are not there to hire and fire; we’re there to set policy,” Britt said.
In the dispute, McCorkle also claimed her replacement was named prematurely, during her appeals process, which abridged her right to due process. In addition, she claimed she was improperly terminated for whistle blowing activity, specifically that she notified officials, as per the Statesboro Code of Ethics, of “resume falsification by the City Manager, non-compliance of audit requirements for liquor license(s) by a council person and a failure of a council person to file reports with the States Ethics commission.”
She sought $1,165,000 in damages, even though she never filed a lawsuit in federal or state court.
Once the city was aware of McCorkle’s potential claim, council addressed the issue at numerous executive sessions throughout the spring. Brannen said council thought it best to reach some type of settlement agreement, based upon the advice and opinion of Pat O’Connor and his team. O’Connor is the attorney hired by Georgia Interlocal Risk Management Agency, the city’s insurance carrier, to represent the city in this case.
“It’d be difficult to say if we went to court how the case would turn out,” Joe Brannen said. “From what we had understood, it may have been 50/50. It was no better than that.”
Chance, however, said the idea of reinstating McCorkle to her former position was “taken off the table.”
“On more than two or three separate occasions, council said, ‘Judy is not coming back,’’’ Chance said.
While both Chance and Britt believed the city should take the case to court, the council had to decide what was best for the city. After many discussions, Britt and Chance said the council directed O’Connor to accept a settlement of no more than $500,000.
“Two weeks ago, it was ‘OK guys, if we can settle this, what number do we need?’ $1.2 million is astronomical – not going to do it. The mayor came up with $500,000,” Chance said. “We gave Pat O’Connor permission, if it was under $500,000 it was to be settled right then. Period.”
Sam Brannen said, to his recollection, no option was eliminated from consideration.
“There have been several discussions about Judy over the course of the past year, but there’s never been a conclusive statement that (the council) would not pursue a particular course of action with her,” Brannen said. “There’s been no closing of doors that I’m aware of.”
Legal representation for McCorkle and the city met for mediation May 26. Two proposals came from that meeting.
In the first option the city would give McCorkle a settlement of $450,000 as a full payment for all claims. She would not be eligible to re-apply for employment with the city and would be required to sign a general release and covenant not to sue. The second option called for full reinstatement of McCorkle to her former duties and included a provision for nearly $68,000 in back pay and $50,000 in attorney’s fees.
With either option, the city would only be required to pay half the settlement amount, while the city’s insurance would cover the other half.
When the proposals were brought up in Tuesday’s council meeting, Councilman Tommy Blitch moved for reinstatement after a motion by Britt to settle for $450,000 failed in a 3-2 vote. Blitch’s motion, which was supported by Mayor Bill Hatcher passed 3-2 with Blitch, Joe Brannen and Lewis voting for reinstatement and Chance and Britt voting against.
Joe Brannen said finances were a big reason for his vote to reinstate the former city clerk.
“The main thing was the difference of $322,000 cost to the city and that the way I felt I needed to go – trying to save (the city) those dollars,” Brannen said. “I hope we’ve come up with a fair decision, but only time will tell that.”
Lewis also cited the economy as the reason for his vote.
“I think we made the right decision. The city doesn’t have $450,000 to pay a person. We have furloughs,” Lewis said. “It’s not good for the citizens to be spending money on things that I think could have been handled in a better way.”
Employees were skeptical about the council’s decision to return McCorkle to city hall. Some expressed concerns about their jobs and voiced fears of reprisal. Some said it was fine she was back. Others expressed concern about giving her the same level of authority she previously had because they were worried the conflicts would start all over again.
One said the mood of city hall is very bleak.
“Despair. No, what’s worse than despair?” said the employee. “I almost liken it to a death in the family, cancer – it’s almost worse than that. It’s not only at city hall, it’s everywhere.”
According to Sam Brannen, final settlement documents have not been drawn up yet, so there is no set date for McCorkle’s return. He said that she likely will be restored to all of her former positions. McCorkle also is expected to return to her position as supervisor of elections and will likely preside over the upcoming city council election.
The mayor, as well as council seats in Districts 1 and 4, currently held by Blitch and Brannen, are up for election in the fall. Qualifying for the seats starts in late August.
Last Tuesday, Hatcher was asked what the vote said to City Manager Shane Hayes, considering the council decided to override his decision to terminate McCorkle.
“You have to draw your own conclusion from that. I wouldn’t comment on that,” Hatcher said. “The only comment I’ll make is that three separate times before he released Ms. McCorkle, I said to the city manager, ‘That is not the thing to do. You should not do that at this time.’”
Joe Brannen wouldn’t say if he still had confidence in the city manager. He said he would not comment on personnel matters, but did say bringing an employee back into the fold can be difficult.
“It looks like it’s going to be hard. I just hope that things will work out,” Brannen said. “We’re going to count on Judy, Shane and the other involved to get the job done. I think the council will be looking very, very close at the situation. I think she will do her very best to make things work.”
Lewis said Saturday he lacked confidence in the city manager, but would not say whether he would seek Haynes’ resignation in an upcoming meeting.
“I can’t answer that right now,” Lewis said. “But I do know one thing, there are problems in city hall that need to be straightened out and I’m willing to take the necessary steps to straighten this problem. And I will take the necessary steps.”
Haynes declined to comment on the reinstatement of McCorkle, but he did issue a statement.
"I love my job and am blessed and humbled to work with amazing people who are committed to each other and to the citizens of Statesboro,” Haynes said. “As long as I serve as City Manager I will work with them to do our very best together as a team for this great community."
Mayor Hatcher, Coucilman Blitch and Judy McCorkle could not be reached for comment.
Phil Boyum may be reached at (912) 489-9454.