Robert Cheshire, Statesboro’s city engineer for more than 15 years, has officially begun his service as interim city manager, after last week’s public falling out over alleged private meetings ended in City Council firing City Manager Frank Parker.
Meanwhile, Municipal Court Judge Keith Barber is reportedly talking to an attorney with no connections to the city who will work with an experienced investigator to look into whether Parker, City Attorney Alvin Leaphart and council members violated the state open meetings law.
Morale among city employees is good, but they are working through the anxieties that come with a workplace shakeup, Cheshire said in an interview after Tuesday’s council meeting.
“I think morale is good, but it’s like anytime that there’s a major change like that,” he said. “There’s a lot of emotion that people are still working through themselves, and that’s where I hope I can step in and relieve whatever anxieties that I have the capacity to do.”
It should help, he said, that other city employees already know him and his management style.
Tuesday morning’s regular City Council meeting included a 4-0 vote, with Councilman Will Britt absent, to appoint Cheshire interim manager. Councilman John Riggs made the motion, and Councilman Phil Boyum seconded it. But no terms were discussed or announced.
Afterward, Mayor Jan Moore said the week since Parker’s firing had not left sufficient time for a contract with Cheshire to be drawn up but that one will be presented at the July 15 meeting.
“There will be a contract on the next agenda for Robert to serve as interim for six months, through the end of December,” Moore said.
At this point, Cheshire is serving as manager on his regular salary as city engineer. A week earlier, at the same meeting where council voted to terminate Parker’s contract “for cause,” meaning that he allegedly violated its terms, council had authorized Moore to talk to Cheshire about serving as interim manager.
Tuesday, Cheshire referred to its being his fifth day in the role, rather than his first.
“Right now, it’s really just keeping the course in the right direction,” he said. “This is my fifth day, so I’m really getting a hold of everything. But I’ve served in a senior department head position for long enough to have a pretty good feel, and I know all of the department heads and a majority of the staff.”
The contract that is in the works will not bar Cheshire from applying for the permanent job of city manager. Moore said that 60 days prior to the six-month contract’s expiration, Cheshire and the council will decide whether he will continue as city manager, and consider at that point whether to make it a permanent position.
“We’ll look at that three or four months from now as to whether we’d like to conduct a search or not,” Moore said. “We don’t have an answer to that at this time.”
Cheshire said he decide whether to apply if the council decides to open the job for applications.
Cheshire, 51, grew up in Statesboro from fourth grade and is a resident of Bulloch County. He graduated from the University of Georgia in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering and is a registered professional civil engineer. First employed as an assistant city engineer in 1992, he became city engineer the next year. He later left for five years but returned in the same role in 2009.
Cheshire said he is looking into naming a member of his department as interim city engineer.
In a specially called meeting June 24, council voted 3-2 to terminate Parker’s contract on the grounds that he had either violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act or damaged the City Council’s integrity with false allegations. This followed a June 19 staff meeting at which, by several accounts, Parker stated that he had sometimes met with a quorum of council members in private to discuss city business.
He had also said that he had seen a majority of council members meeting with Leaphart in his office, which Leaphart has denied.
Parker’s attorney, Daniel Snipes, attended the June 24 meeting, but he and Parker have not issued a statement since then.
Also at the June 24 special meeting, all five council members approved Moore’s request for an independent investigation, with Barber to find an attorney to direct it.
Barber has an experienced attorney in mind who has served in another county in many roles “from district attorney to public defender,” Moore said in Tuesday’s interview. She did not identify the attorney, who had yet to formally take the job.
The attorney, she said, will work with an investigator who has no connection to Statesboro, Bulloch County or their law enforcement agencies. Moore hopes for a fairly short process, but the city is not imposing a timeframe, she said.
The only focus of the investigation, Moore said, will be Parker’s allegations and, specifically, “Did violations of the Georgia Open Meetings Act occur?”
The attorney appointed to head the investigation will report to Barber, not the mayor, and any action that results will follow from conversations with Barber, Moore said.
City Council’s regular practice allows two times for potential public comment during a meeting. Former mayoral candidate Bill Thomas signed up for both opportunities Tuesday, and given two minutes each time, used them to excoriate the mayor and council for firing Parker and to make other allegations.
“Your lynching of Mr. Parker last week is shameful, and in the same breath after you lambasted him, destroyed his character, fired him publicly and called him a bald-faced liar, you praised him for the great job he did as city manager,” Thomas said. “I was a little bit confused by that.”
Thomas also criticized the way the investigation is being organized.
“I’ve never seen anybody hire an attorney and have that attorney turn around and incriminate them. …” he said. “I think probably the best way to do that would be to truly hire an independent investigator, and I believe the best in this state is the GBI.”
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.