City attorney to get more than $93,750

Parting ways with former General Counsel Chiquita Johnson won't be cheap.

 

Under a severance package approved by the Augusta Commission on Tuesday, she'll continue receiving pay and benefits for nine months, whether she finds a new job or not.

With her annual salary of $125,000, paying her until Sept. 30 will cost $93,750.

The cost of Ms. Johnson's benefits weren't immediately available Tuesday -- Finance Director Donna Williams asked for an open records request and Human Resources Director Rod Powell didn't immediately return a call -- but City Administrator Fred Russell said it's usually a little less than a third of pay.

Using that calculation and adding in the $1,187.14 the city agreed to pay to Ms. Johnson's landlord to break her lease, the cost of severing ties with the former city attorney will total about $125,000 -- the same amount the city paid last year to settle a discrimination lawsuit filed by fired city engineer Teresa Smith.

When the issue of accepting Ms. Johnson's resignation came up Tuesday, a few commissioners balked at the notion of paying her extra money, but Mr. Russell told them it was the best way to make a clean break.

"You would be walking down a path that you don't want to walk down, at this particular time," Mr. Russell said of terminating her without an agreement.

If the board did so, by contract the city would have had to pay her salary and benefits for six months, totaling roughly $83,333. In that case, she could still file suit, and the deal worked out Monday includes an agreement that she won't sue or seek any monetary damages should she file a discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The commission voted 7-3 to accept Ms. Johnson's resignation and the terms of the package, and to appoint Staff Attorney Andrew McKenzie as interim general counsel. Commissioners Matt Aitken, Bill Lockett and Jimmy Smith dissented.

Mr. Aitken said he voted no because he's new to the board and was unfamiliar with the issue. Mr. Smith said he didn't like the terms of the severance package, questioning why she should be compensated beyond six months "when all the evidence is clear that we have." Mr. Lockett said he was opposed because the deal was worked out behind the scenes.

"For some reason or another, I was left out of the loop," Mr. Lockett said. "I would hope that this would be the last time that this commission will do that."

Mr. Russell said that, in working out the arrangement with Ms. Johnson, he was acting under the direction of seven commissioners -- all but the two new ones and J.R. Hatney -- who were prepared to otherwise fire her Tuesday. No meetings were held, just one-on-one phone conversations, Mr. Russell said.

Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson said if that's the case, commissioners acted properly under the Georgia Open Meetings Act.

Mr. Russell said he was given legal guidance by Atlanta attorney Ben Mathis, who was referred to Commissioner Jerry Brigham by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. Mr. Mathis, a labor and employment attorney, is a partner in Freeman, Mathis & Gary, one of the outside firms Ms. Johnson was doling out work to. The firm has handled airport matters, the Teresa Smith case and property tax appeal cases.

Mr. Brigham said it's his understanding that Mr. Mathis only gave legal guidance.

Mr. Russell said all the negotiations were between him and Ms. Johnson, and Mr. Mathis only drafted and approved the documents.

Though he voted yes, Commissioner Don Grantham said afterward that while he wanted to accept her resignation, he did not want to cast a vote in favor of the severance package. After checking into procedural rules to determine whether the vote could be recorded as 6-4, City Clerk Lena Bonner said it will stay as 7-3.

Other terms of the agreement include stipulations that Ms. Johnson will not apply for another job with the city, and that if a future employer seeks a reference, Mr. Russell will say that she voluntarily resigned and confirm her employment dates. Upon request from Ms. Johnson, the city will also provide a letter of reference, which Mr. Russell said is more neutral and less glowing than the one given to Ms. Smith.

Another part of the agreement says that she will not disparage Mr. Russell or the mayor, and they will likewise not disparage her. Otherwise, the cost is $1,500 per breach.

Ms. Johnson's forced resignation Tuesday came in the wake of a string of problems and revelations regarding her past and how she has been running the Law Department.

Nine months before Augusta hired her, Ms. Johnson was fired from a job with the Georgia Department of Public Safety's Legal Services Division for misuse of a government-issued American Express corporate card. According to records obtained by The Augusta Chronicle through an open records request, she used the card to buy items from the Home Shopping Network, grocery stores and pharmacies, restaurants and a women's clothing store.

This was apparently unknown to the commission search committee, led by Mr. Hatney, that hired her in October 2007.

If the city were to contend that she was hired under false pretences, there's no paper trail to back that up because in Ms. Johnson's application with the city, sections where past jobs and reasons for leaving should be disclosed were left blank, as was most of the full form.

Mr. Powell, the Human Resources director, was not with the city at the time, but said last week that checking Ms. Johnson's background was handled by former employment manager Moses McCauley, who retired last month. While there are no documents in Ms. Johnson's file indicating past employers were contacted, Mr. Powell said Mr. McCauley told him he checked with Public Safety and was told she resigned voluntarily, an account Public Safety Personnel Director Dan Roach said makes no sense to him.

During Tuesday's meeting, Commissioner Joe Bowles said he meant no disrespect to Mr. McKenzie, but he questioned how well the city will vet future candidates for the position considering what happened with Ms. Johnson. Mr. Russell said the city will launch a search for a new general counsel.

"Whatever we did last time," Mr. Mason said in an interview later, "we're not going to do it again this time, because that didn't work."

Ms. Johnson has not returned numerous calls from The Chronicle seeking comment.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

COMMISSION VOTE WAS 7-3

THE DEAL

She will continue receiving pay and benefits for nine months. The city also agreed to pay $1,187.14 to Ms. Johnson's landlord to break her lease.

THE VOTE

Commissioners Matt Aitken, Bill Lockett and Jimmy Smith dissented in accepting the severance package for Chiquita Johnson:

- Mr. Aitken said as a new commissioner he was not familiar enough with the issue to agree.

- Mr. Lockett was opposed to the deal because it was worked out behind the scenes.

- Mr. Smith said he questioned why Ms. Johnson needed to be compensated past six months.

IN OTHER BUSINESS

- Before the commission approved the minutes of the Dec. 15 meeting on the consent agenda, Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason asked that issues involving the committee that will determine whether the city needs a Chronic Nuisance Properties Ordinance be clarified, particularly who's in charge of it. The board agreed that Commissioner Joe Bowles will appoint the four committee members from the community and will be responsible for moving the effort forward. The committee must report back to the commission in 90 to 120 days. It will also include representatives of License and Inspection, Planning and Zoning, the marshal's office, the sheriff's office, the solicitor's office, the fire department and the Law Department.

- By a 9-1 vote, Mr. Smith dissenting, the commission approved 2009 committee assignments devised by Mayor Deke Copenhaver and Mr. Mason. Afterward, Mr. Copenhaver asked for a re-vote for a show of unanimous support, but Mr. Grantham objected, saying the matter had been decided already. The second vote was 7-2-1, with Mr. Smith and Jerry Brigham dissenting and Mr. Grantham abstaining.

J.R. Hatney will chair the Administrative Services committee, with Mr. Aitken as vice chair. Corey Johnson will chair the Engineering Services Committee, with Mr. Bowles as vice chair. Mr. Grantham will chair the Finance Committee, with Mr. Lockett as vice chair. Joe Jackson will chair the Public Safety/Information Technology Committee, with Mr. Mason as vice chair. Jerry Brigham will chair the Public Services Committee, with Mr. Smith has vice chair.

The following commissioners were appointed as ex-officio members of the following boards and authorities: Mr. Brigham to the Richmond County Board of Health; Mr. Aitken to Augusta Regional Airport Aviation Commission; Mr. Bowles to the Greater Augusta Arts Council; Mr. Johnson to the Planning Commission; Mr. Smith to the Richmond County Public Library Board; Mr. Grantham to the General Aviation Commission; Mr. Lockett to the Richmond County Board of Education; Mr. Hatney to Family Connection; Mr. Mason to the Richmond County Hospital Authority and Mr. Jackson to the 911 Committee.