By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
City votes to settle with former city engineer
Elhaj cited racial tensions; council agrees to offer $240,000
Placeholder Image

    The City of Statesboro will once again dip into its revenue-strapped coffers to settle a lawsuit with a disgruntled former employee.
    City Council members voted last week to offer former City Engineer Maz Elhaj a settlement of $240,000 to drop a lawsuit he filed in 2008.  Half of the settlement would be paid from the city’s general fund and the other half by the city’s insurance company, Georgia Interlocal Risk Management Agency (GIRMA). The agreement also stipulates Elhaj would not be eligible for rehire by the city.
    Neither the city nor Elhaj has signed the agreement at this time, according to City Manager Shane Haynes.
    Councilman Tommy Blitch said he voted to settle the lawsuit based upon the advice of legal counsel, who said it likely would be more cost effective to settle than go to court.
    “I think right now it was a way to do it, get it behind us and have a clean state,” Blitch said. “Better to do it and be through with it, I think.”
    Elhaj was initially demoted to assistant city engineer by Haynes in September 2008 after serving as city engineer for more than four years.  At the time, Haynes said the change was a difficult decision, but one that was made after the city council raised concerns about the inability of the engineering department to finish projects on-time and under budget. Haynes also said Elhaj would have continued with the city if he chose to stay on as assistant.
    “After a lot of consideration and with Maz having a lot of talent and serving the city so well for 13 years, we didn’t want to lose that talent,” Haynes said in October 2008.
    Elhaj stayed on as the assistant city engineer for a few weeks before taking a lengthy leave by using hundreds of hours of accrued holiday and sick leave. Haynes said his total accrued time was nearly 1,200 hours. Elhaj was eventually terminated for failure to report to work after he did not come to work after all his accrued time was expended.
    “If he’d have shown up for work, we would have continued on,” Haynes said.
    By the time he was officially terminated, Elhaj had already filed a lawsuit against the city in U.S. Federal District court, saying that his demotion was a de facto termination. In communication between Elhaj’s attorney, Gary Kessler, and the city discussing his potential claim, Elhaj alleged his demotion/termination was illegal, discriminatory and race-based.
    “He felt like action was taken against him because in his mind there was a racial environment that was not conducive and was anti-him. He felt there were other department heads that never liked him and were against him. Even when the former city manager (George Wood) was here, he felt like they had berated him and tried to get him fired,” Haynes said. “That was his feeling and his contention – that’s why he didn’t return to work – (Elhaj said) it was a tough environment for him to be in.”
    Haynes denied discrimination played any part in his decision to demote Elhaj.
    The communication between Kessler and the city also stated Elhaj would be willing to settle the matter for two years’ severance and benefits at the salary rate of city engineer, continued employment status for two years, entitlement to early retirement status and benefits at age 55, compensatory and punitive damages of $350,000, in addition to attorney’s fees.
    Early this year, current staff members, a former human resources director and at least one councilman were deposed by Elhaj’s attorneys. After the depositions were reviewed and upon advice of city and GIRMA legal counsels, the council voted to settle the matter with Elhaj because the litigation could have easily cost the city more than cost to settle.
    “Legal counsel really pushed this decision,” said Councilman Travis Chance.
    Blitch said he believes the city followed proper procedure for demoting and terminating Elhaj, as outlined by the city’s personnel policy.
    “As far as I know they did,” Blitch said. “I believe that they did and I hope that they did.”
    Councilman Gary Lewis said Wednesday he did not want to give a statement about the settlement. Lewis said he did not want to be in conflict with any official statement made by the city manager.
    Mayor Joe Brannen said he was reluctant to discuss the Elhaj matter until both parties signed the settlement agreement.
    Councilman Will Britt was not present at last week’s meeting.         Phil Boyum may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

Sign up for the Herald's free e-newsletter