Statesboro City Council on Tuesday fired City Manager Frank Parker after he said, during a staff meeting last week, that he sometimes met in private with a quorum of council members — a violation of the Georgia Open Meetings Act.
The vote was 3-2, with Mayor Pro Tem Will Britt and Councilman Gary Lewis opposed.
At the recommendation of Mayor Jan Moore, the council is also asking Municipal Court Judge Keith Barber to appoint an attorney with no ties with Statesboro to conduct an investigation into whether Parker's comments had any merit. That vote was unanimous.
"Council has basically determined to investigate themselves," Moore said when asked what the investigation would mean since Parker had already been fired.
The council also authorized Moore to talk to City Engineer Robert Cheshire about his serving as interim city manager.
During the special called meeting at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Moore and City Attorney Alvin Leaphart both said that when Parker made the statements during a meeting of city department heads Thursday, they were "taken aback."
Although council met for roughly 33 minutes in closed session Tuesday, the allegations were aired in public. As Leaphart explained with a passage from the Georgia Open Meetings Act, although a closed session may be held for discussion of personnel decisions, in cases involving disciplinary action, evidence must first be received and argument heard in public.
Another part of the law allows council members to attend statewide or regional meetings and training sessions "at which no official action is to be taken" without these being public meetings.
But when public meetings are required, a knowing and willful violation can result in a fine up to $1,000; additional violations the same year in fines up to $2,500, as Leaphart also read Tuesday.
Mayor, attorney's version
Moore was the first to describe what happened at Thursday's staff meeting. With about 12 or 13 people present, including city department heads, the mayor had noted that the City Council meeting two days earlier included heated discussion over the raise awarded city employees, she said.
"Then I said I hope you understand that doing the public's business can be messy, that you can't vet these things out in private because you can't have more than two councilmen in the room at one time to discuss city issues, and therefore you have to vet them out in public," Moore said.
At that point, Moore said, Parker had interrupted and said, "No, that's not the case; I regularly meet with four or five councilmen in a room to discuss city business."
Parker had repeated this and added that when he attends Georgia Municipal Association meetings with council members, they get together and discuss city business, Moore said. He had also said that he had seen a majority of council members in Leaphart's office discussing city business.
Leaphart's description of Parker's comments the previous Thursday closely matched Moore's.
"There was no real qualification about it," Leaphart said. "I was frankly stunned that anybody would make that kind of admission about themselves and this governing body."
During his comments to staff, Parker had looked over at Leaphart and said he had seen four or five council members in his office discussing city business, Leaphart reported.
"To which I deny. I've never done that," Leaphart said. "That's all I have to say."
Councilman Phil Boyum said that when he learned of these comments, he concluded that Parker had violated his employment contract in one of two ways.
"If it's true, he violated the state law, which in my view violates his employment contract, or he's slandered the council by saying that we meet in these sessions when in fact we do not, which of course is my position," Boyum said.
Either way, he added, the conclusion was to "sever the relationship" with Parker.
Britt said he had worked since 9 a.m. Saturday to avoid Tuesday's special meeting and "to sever a relationship with a little bit of graying instead of a finite white and black," but he had been unable to achieve that.
Acknowledging that he called for Tuesday's meeting, Councilman Travis Chance said he was motivated by past events.
"We were caught for a technicality and found guilty of violating the Open Records and Meetings Act some years back, and that left a permanent scar, and I have made it my mission that everything we do is in full light of the public ... and I was not only appalled but enraged that we were basically thrown into a different realm by a blatant lie," Chance said.
He said council understood GMA meetings to be an exception but that no discussions of official business have taken place there, and called it "a boldfaced lie" to state otherwise.
Parker's version of last Thursday's comments was different. He had noted that such discussions took place during GMA trips and told Leaphart that he had seen a majority of council in his office "on one occasion" but did not say such meetings occurred regularly, Parker said Tuesday.
"I can demonstrate if necessary those occasions when those meetings took place, because in some cases there were other people present," Parker said. "In two of those cases it was the previous mayor of the city of Statesboro when we met at GMA in a private room."
Saying that the council had heard sufficient evidence, Moore recommended that council call for an independent investigation.
"I take open meetings very seriously, and I think our council takes open meetings very seriously, and to toss out that that is not necessarily something that we take seriously, and that it happens on a regular basis in violation of Georgia open meetings law got us here today."
Excluded from the room during the closed-door deliberation, Parker was asked whether his Thursday comments were the real reason he was apparently to be terminated.
"It's an excuse. Is it the reason? I've got a feeling that it's not," Parker said. "My comment to the mayor was not that I condone but that I don't and we don't need to continue those practices in the future."
He would not elaborate on what the real reason might be and said he could not challenge his termination because he served at the will of the mayor and council.
"It is very unfortunate that we have arrived at this place," Moore began when council returned to open session. "Mr. Parker has done tremendous work for the city and should be properly commended for the work he has done."
But, rephrasing Boyum's point that Parker's comments must either be true, meaning he violated the law, or false, in which case he had "damaged the integrity" of council, Moore said the time had come to sever the relationship.
Chance made the motion, Councilman John Riggs seconded it, and Boyum joined in voting to terminate Parker's contract for cause. After citing his long friendship with Parker, Lewis joined Britt in voting against the motion.
After the meeting, Parker declined further comment.
Parker was appointed interim city manager in 2010 and named manager in 2011. Because he was fired for cause, he is not entitled to severance pay unless council decides to grant it, Moore said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.