In a notice of intent to file a claim against the city of Statesboro, former City Manager Frank Parker asked for more than $250,000 in damages and asserted that he was protected by the state Whistleblower Act for statements that led to his June 24 firing.
However, no lawsuit has been filed at this point, and Parker’s lawyer, Daniel Snipes of Statesboro, said Friday that if a formal complaint is filed it will not specify a dollar amount.
“If Frank decides that he wants to file a lawsuit, it will just say ‘in an amount to be proven at the time of trial,’” Snipes said, explaining that a more specific demand was required for the type of notice he sent the city July 22 than would be included in the actual complaint.
The July letter was an ante-litem, or “before litigation” notice, required under Georgia law before certain kinds of claims against a city or county can proceed. It gives the local government a chance to settle without having to go to court.
Since Snipes’ notice gave the city 30 days to respond and an attorney for the city replied this week citing the ongoing investigation requested by City Council but also denying all of Parker’s claims, he could file suit now. Snipes said he has been busy with other cases but hopes to talk to Parker next week about how to proceed.
Snipes also mentioned the city’s investigation and said Parker has cooperated with it.
At a specially called meeting June 24, City Council heard from Mayor Jan Moore, City Attorney Alvin Leaphart and Parker himself about statements he made at a June 19 meeting with city department heads.
There, according to Moore’s account during the June 24 council meeting, Parker said he had regularly met “with four or five councilmen in a room to discuss city business.” He had also said he had seen Leaphart meeting with a quorum of council members in his office, which Leaphart denied ever having done.
Such meetings, with no opportunity for the public to attend, would violate the Georgia Open Meetings Act.
In his June 24 explanation of what he had meant, Parker referred to talks he had with council members during trips out of town, such as annual Georgia Municipal Association meetings.
In voting 3-2 to terminate Parker’s employment, the council based its decision on logic articulated by Councilman Phil Boyum, who said Parker had either broken the Open Meetings law himself or made a false accusation against the council.
Letters obtained from the city through an open records request show an exchange between Snipes, acting on Parker’s behalf, and an attorney for the city began shortly after the firing.
In a June 27 letter to Leaphart, Snipes wrote that Parker had instructed him to “make all reasonable efforts to resolve his claims without resorting to litigation” because he did not want to harm the city’s or the council’s public image.
“In the almost four years that he served as city manager, Mr. Parker corrected the numerous problems left by the prior city manager and improved the perception of the city government within the business community dramatically,” Snipes wrote. “Mr. Parker does not wish to undo the goodwill that he had a large role in creating.”
Snipes then asserted that Parker could not have violated the Open Meetings Act because only members of a governing body, in this case City Council, can form a quorum for a meeting.
Snipes’ letter mentioned Boyum’s assertion as the basis of the council’s decision and named two other council members, Gary Lewis and Travis Chance. During the meeting where Parker was fired, Snipes observed, Lewis had said Parker was correct because council members had held meetings in Atlanta. Chance, Snipes said, stated he had attended such meetings where he discussed issues like a goal for the Gentilly Drive sidewalk project.
“The current council is under the mistaken impression that meetings of the City Council while in Atlanta or Savannah for Georgia Municipal Association events are exempt from the Open Meetings Act,” Snipes wrote.
The June 27 letter asserted that Parker’s firing gave him claims under the state Whistleblower Act – which prohibits retaliation against public employees who disclose illegal actions by their agencies – as well as for violations of his contract. At that point, Parker was willing to dismiss all claims in return for the city retracting all statements alleging that he had acted unprofessionally or in violation of the public trust, replacing these with a statement that he was terminated at the pleasure of council, and paying him $100,000 “for amounts due under … the employment agreement” plus $25,000 for attorney’s fees and related expenses.
That letter was answered not by Leaphart but by Read Gignilliat, an Atlanta lawyer obtained for the city of Statesboro by its insurer. In a July 16 letter, he told Snipes that the council’s consensus was to reject the demands and not make a counteroffer.
Gignilliat referred to Parker’s claim that the conduct that led to his firing “constitutes protected whistleblowing activity” as “firmly rejected, as is his after-the fact attempt to recast his comments at the June 19, 2014 department head meeting.”
The city, Gignilliat wrote, was withholding a response to the other claims “pending completion of the independent investigation that is presently underway and the attorney general’s review of same.”
Snipes then sent the July 22 ante-litem notice. It restated the claims of the first letter and added a claim for “intentional infliction of emotional distress and slander” and an assertion that Parker’s firing violated a city ordinance.
The notice stated that Parker would seek $250,000 in personal damages “in addition to contractual damages for violation of his employment contract and … all equitable damages allowed under the Whistleblower Act and Georgia Open Meetings Act.”
Gignilliat’s reply to this, delivered Wednesday, again states that the city is awaiting the findings of the investigation. But Gignilliat also wrote that “Mr. Parker may regard his claims as rejected” for the purposes of the ante-litem law.
In a response on the claims of slander and emotional distress, Gignilliat referred to “privileged” communications, implying that city officials could not slander Parker with statements made as part of official proceedings.
“We’re deferring to the investigation insofar as we need to find out what those results are before we take any affirmative steps, but insofar as Mr. Parker’s employment-related claims are concerned, we do deny the validity of those claims,” Gignilliat said by phone Friday.
Where from here?
Asked if he wished Parker and his attorney would also await the investigation’s outcome, Gignilliat said he would go further and hope they decide not to proceed with their claims at all.
“I don’t think there’s any merit to the allegations that he’s made, particularly in regard to his employment,” Gignilliat said. “I think that the city acted within its rights in terminating his employment, irrespective of what the investigative report reveals.”
Council members Chance and Lewis, mentioned in the first letter, declined comment for this story. Mayor Moore said she could not comment with the investigation continuing.
The vote to fire Parker had been on a motion by Chance, seconded by Councilman John Riggs, with Boyum casting the third “yes” and Lewis and Councilman Will Britt opposed.
When asked about the claim that Parker, as city manager, could not violate the Open Meetings Act, Boyum referred to a section of the law.
“It clearly states ‘any person knowingly and willfully conducting or participating in a meeting in violation of this chapter shall be guilty.’ That’s what I based my decision on,” Boyum said. “It clearly states ‘any person.’”
The investigation requested by the city and being conducted by attorney Tom A. Peterson IV of Vidalia has cost more than $10,000 at this point, as learned through a separate open records request. Moore told the council earlier this month that the investigation would take until mid-September at the earliest.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.