It wasn’t a trial, but Superior Court Judge John R. Turner heard Monday afternoon from both sides — and all three corners — in former City Manager Frank Parker’s wrongful-firing lawsuit against the city of Statesboro and its elected officials.
Attorneys for two different sets of City Council members explained their arguments to have the case decided by summary judgment, short of a trial. Parker’s attorney, Daniel B. Snipes, argued against their reasoning.
Parker asserts that he acted as a whistleblower in exposing violations of the Georgia Open Meetings Act with a statement he made during a city staff meeting on June 19, 2014. Five days later, when City Council members voted 3-2 to fire him because of what he had said, the mayor and council violated the Georgia Whistleblower Act by retaliating against him, Snipes argued.
But R. Read Gignilliat, as attorney for the city, for Mayor Jan Moore and for the three council members who voted to fire Parker, argued that what Parker said was not specific enough to meet the definition of a whistleblower disclosure.
“Specificity is what the statute requires,” Gignilliat told Turner.
At the June 19, 2014, department heads meeting, Moore reportedly remarked that recent council debates about a raise for city employees had been contentious but necessarily public. Parker then said that he had sometimes met privately with a majority of council members.
In the specially called City Council meeting on June 24, 2014, Councilman Phil Boyum asserted that if Parker’s statements were true he had violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act and that if they were false he had slandered the council. That became the council’s stated reasoning in firing Parker.
He then asserted whistleblower status in an August pre-litigation notice and the complaint that initiated his lawsuit in September 2014.
But in interviews under oath that have been made part of the record, Parker never identified a single violation, but spoke of “potential violations,” Gignilliat said in court Monday.
Snipes countered by arguing that Parker had been specific enough in disclosing that city officials had in the past violated a particular ordinance, the Open Meetings Act.
The mayor and council then openly fired Parker because of that disclosure, without resorting to a pretext as an employer might in firing someone out of age or gender discrimination while claiming that the reason was being late for work, Snipes argued.
“There’s not a pretextual violation here,” Snipes said. “He was terminated for retaliation.”
According to documents filed in the lawsuit, Parker’s allegations referred to conversations council members had while at Georgia Municipal Association conferences in Atlanta in 2011, 2012, 2013 and January 2014, and to a luncheon hosted by a local engineer, and attended by some council members, in Statesboro in April 2014.
In preparing for a GMA event in June 2014, Parker had realized that council members’ discussions of city business during these previous events had violated the law, and was alerting the city, Snipes said.
Arguing that the judge should not decide the case by summary judgment, Snipes also asserted that “whether he (Parker) knew or should have known” that the previous meetings violated the law is an issue for a jury to determine.
At one point Turner said, “I’m frankly struggling with the use of the term ‘disclosure’ here, because ‘disclosure,’ to me, means revealing of things hidden.”
But after further explanation from Snipes, the judge said he understood a little better.
Through their attorneys, the city officials maintain that the 90-day deadline to report an open meetings violation had expired, at least by the time Parker filed the lawsuit. Parker, meanwhile, claims that he personally could not violate the Open Meetings Act because only a quorum of City Council could do that.
But Gignilliat asserted that the city’s stated reasons for firing Parker were its real reasons, and that these were sufficient for dismissing him without severance pay under the terms of his contract.
Other claims for damages Parker asserts include that the city officials, in the way they fired him, intentionally caused him severe emotional distress and that they slandered him in their public statements that day.
Snipes has also asserted that, although Parker’s title was city manager, he fulfilled the prescribed role of a city administrator, and that the city violated its own ordinances, which required 30-days notice, plus time to reply before a hearing to dismiss the administrator.
But Gignilliat argued in court Monday that these ordinances were “holdovers, left in place inadvertently once the city converted from a city administrator … to a city manager form of government.”
The city has also asserted both sovereign immunity and official immunity, but Gignilliat said Tuesday that these would apply only to the emotional distress and slander claims. Sovereign immunity shields a government in its official actions, while official immunity shields officials from liability for actions they took while acting in their official capacity.
They voted ‘no’
Turner also heard from Phillip E. Friduss, the attorney representing City Council members Will Britt and Gary Lewis, who cast the two votes against firing Parker. In his written filings, Friduss has adopted some of Gignilliat’s points of argument and evidence. He did so again during the hearing, and again asserted one major difference between his clients and Gignilliat’s.
“The thing is, my clients did not vote to terminate Mr. Parker, they voted against it,” Friduss told the judge.
The hearing in Bulloch County Superior Court lasted about one hour. Parker and his wife sat at the front of the audience section behind Parker’s attorneys.
Moore and the city’s full-time attorney, J. Alvin Leaphart IV, who is not actively involved in the lawsuit, sat behind Friduss and Gignilliat, but none of the council members were there. About 20 people were in the courtroom, including the court officials.
Turner made no announcement about when he will return a decision on the motions for summary judgment.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.