Department heads could bail out with tidy sum

For Augusta department heads, being shown the door doesn't mean walking away empty-handed.

Such was the case with former General Counsel Chiquita Johnson, who pocketed roughly $125,000 in severance and benefits when she was forced to resign earlier this month. And, under a city policy approved in March 2007, all department directors serving under the Augusta Commission can expect some type of severance package if the board decides their services are no longer needed.

If fired without cause, these 18 managers would get packages ranging from one to six months' pay and benefits, depending on how long they've served in the position. Of these, 11 have worked at least five years and would be entitled to six extra months on the payroll if terminated. For 10 of those, the parachute would cost taxpayers more than $50,000, according to an analysis by The Augusta Chronicle .

Gross incompetence could be considered cause for firing, Human Resources Director Rod Powell said, as could dishonesty, fraud, negligence, insubordination, alcohol/drug abuse, disgrace, prejudice or breach of contract.

Legalities and liabilities, however, make it more probable that the city would stick with the "without cause" classification in most cases, Mr. Powell said. Even in a case where criminal charges had been filed for, say, embezzlement, a person could be cleared in court later and might come looking for his job back.

To fire with cause, "we'd have to catch them flat, red-handed, doing something nasty," Mr. Powell said. "We'd have to have good proof."

Ms. Johnson served as general counsel for a year and 10 months, but her contract guaranteed her a six-month severance. Other than City Administrator Fred Russell, she was the only commission-appointed employee with such an arrangement.

Though it's in the policy, Mr. Powell said the city wouldn't agree to a severance package with any terminated department director without having him sign a waiver agreeing not to sue. Ms. Johnson's contract didn't have that requirement, though, nor does Mr. Russell's.

Mr. Russell, acting under the guidance of seven commissioners in his negotiations with Ms. Johnson, sweetened the deal by offering her three extra months on the payroll, along with $1,187.14 to break her lease, in return for her resignation and an agreement that she wouldn't file suit or seek any monetary damages should she file a discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Firing Ms. Johnson without cause would have cost about $83,333 for six months' pay and benefits. Mr. Russell and some of the commissioners directing him said they reasoned that the $42,000 or so difference between nine and six months would easily be run up in legal costs if Ms. Johnson sued. Depositions of 10 commissioners and the mayor would only be the beginning, they said.

Other terms of the severance included stipulations that Ms. Johnson won't apply for another job with the city, that it will provide her a neutral letter of reference and that neither Mr. Russell nor the mayor will make negative statements about her.

After the commission voted Jan. 5 to accept the terms of the deal, some questioned why six months should even be the case with a department head whose performance, in the opinion of her bosses, left much to be desired.

A recruiting tool

Former Mayor Bob Young said that when an organization fires an employee a reward shouldn't be attached.

"You shouldn't be protected from your own incompetence," he said. "Who needs to have the protection in these instances? It's not the employee; it's the taxpayer."

The policy came about two years after Mr. Young resigned as mayor. It was pushed by Mr. Russell, who said other cities offered fallback plans for politically hired and fired employees and Augusta should do the same to be competitive.

Highly sought after, key professionals, knowing they'll be employed under the whims of a body of elected officials, want assurances that they won't be left destitute if they fall victim to some vendetta, a shift in political winds or punishment for refusing a favor, he said. In Augusta, it takes six of the 10 commissioners to end a department head's employment.

"A lot of it was prompted by my desire to recruit people," Mr. Russell said. "And it's hard to recruit people when there's no parachute for employment."

Mayor Deke Copenhaver said he also advocated for the policy.

"To be able to attract good people to work for this government was not an easy thing to do," he said.

Typical contracts

Checks of other midsize cities in the region showed Mr. Russell to be correct in that when high-ranking managers answer to elected bodies they typically have contracts with extended salary and benefits in the event of termination. Athens-Clarke County and Gwinnett County have such agreements.

Augusta is unique in the number of people with parachutes. In Augusta, unlike other cities, the commission hires and fires all department heads.

But in places where the person who runs the government on a daily basis -- the city manager or mayor -- makes those decisions, directors are considered regular employees, without contracts or agreements requiring taxpayers to pay someone who's no longer working.

In Columbia, for example, 21 department heads answer to either the city manager or an assistant city manager, and there's no standard agreement for severance pay if any of them gets the boot, according to Human Resources Director Jacques Gilliam.

Only Columbia's city manager would automatically get paid beyond his final day. He has a one-year contract, and if he's terminated early he'd be paid for the remainder, Mr. Gilliam said. Columbia has a full-time city attorney who serves at the pleasure of the council without any severance cushion.

In Charleston, S.C., the mayor hires and fires all employees, including department heads, the city attorney and three assistant attorneys. Barbara Vaughn, the director of media relations, said she wasn't aware of anyone in the city government with an employment contract.

In Columbus, Ga., City Manager Isaiah Hugley said he makes recommendations on hiring and firing department directors, which the city council must confirm. No director has a severance agreement, though packages could be negotiated during departures. As for himself, Mr. Hugley said his letter of employment gives him six months' pay and benefits if six of the 10 council members vote to fire him. The consolidated government's full-time, salaried attorney answers to the mayor and has no such agreement.

In Aiken County, Administrator Clay Killian said he and the full-time city attorney would be entitled to six months' compensation, and they're the only ones. Department heads answer to him, Mr. Killian said.

Columbia County has a system similar to Augusta's. Eight people -- six department directors, County Administrator Steve Szablewski and Deputy County Administrator Scott Johnson -- serve the commission and are entitled to severance packages.

Any of the eight fired without cause would get a severance package based on a graduated scale ranging from three months' to nine months' pay and benefits, based on length of service.

For legal services, Columbia County uses private attorney Doug Batchelor and the Hull Barrett law firm, a relationship that the county could sever with no required payment with 30 days' notice, Mr. Szablewski said.

Augusta's severance policy mandates parachutes for fired department heads. A parachute can be extended to lower-ranking employees should someone want to fire the person without concern for ensuing litigation.

In return for former staff attorney Vanessa Flournoy's resignation and waiver of claims in May 2007, the city gave her a month's pay and benefits, according to an agreement reviewed by The Chronicle under an open records request. She had worked for the city since early in the decade.

Staff attorney Stephanie Jones, fired by Ms. Johnson in January 2009 after a year on the job, was given three months' salary and benefits in return for a promise not to sue, according to an agreement signed by the city administrator.

Fickle procedures

Other inconsistencies run through the city's history of hiring and firing, and Mr. Powell, who took over Human Resources in late 2008, said he wants to rectify one that came to light in the forced resignation of Ms. Johnson.

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. This was apparently unknown to both the commission search committee that recommended hiring her and the HR department.

But if the city had tried to contend that she'd been hired under false pretences there would have been no paper trail because Ms. Johnson's application with the city was only partially filled out, with sections left blank where past jobs and reasons for leaving should be disclosed.

Mr. Powell said Ms. Johnson wasn't the only department head without a completed application on file, and, as with the severance packages, it has to do with different treatment for key professionals during the recruiting process.

It's typical, standard practice, he said, for potential department heads to be allowed to submit résumés only because requiring them to fill out tedious applications could be viewed as demeaning or juvenile.

Among the department heads without applications on file: Mr. Russell, Mr. Powell and Engineering Director Abie Ladson.

In October, Mr. Powell began having all applicants fill out forms through an automated, online system. New hires, such as Utilities Director Tom Wiedmeier and Equal Employment Opportunity Office Coordinator Jacqueline Humphrey, have both résumés and applications on file.

Mr. Powell asked Mr. Russell for permission to have all department heads fill out applications retroactively to attest with a signature to prior arrests or convictions, firings and education credentials.

"For future litigation," Mr. Powell said. "If you say it's accurate, and we find out it's invalid, that's falsification of government records."

Mr. Russell nixed the idea, saying the city couldn't require that.

In the future, if the city is recruiting a job prospect who doesn't want to apply electronically, Mr. Powell said, he'll ask for a résumé only, which will be carefully vetted. Then, if the person is hired, he'll have the employee fill out an application for the city's records as a condition of employment.

"That way, you do it with class, and you do it with dignity," Mr. Powell said. "And you don't tick them off."

Reach Johnny Edwards and Sandy Hodson at (706) 724-0851.

Golden parachutes

Eighteen department heads who work at the pleasure of the Augusta Commission fall under a policy, approved in March 2007, that gives them severance packages if the board fires them without cause.

The packages range from one to six months' pay and benefits, depending on how long they've headed their departments.

Under the policy, upon taking the reins they're entitled to one month if fired. After their one-year anniversary, it becomes two months, then three months after their second anniversary, and so forth.

The maximum allowed is six months, which department heads reach after completing their fifth year.

Benefits vary by employee, but they typically cost the city about one-third of pay, according to Human Resources Director Rod Powell.

TAMEKA ALLEN

Information Technology

(also serves as an interim deputy administrator)

Hire date: Oct. 28, 1992

Became a department head: Aug. 18, 2001

Salary: $114,165

Appx. cost of severance: $76,110

---

TOM BECK

Recreation & Parks

Hire date: June 1, 1977

Became a department head: Dec. 19, 1996

Salary: $86,554

Appx. cost of severance: $57,703

---

LENA BONNER

Clerk of Commission

Hire date: Jan. 23, 1973

Became a department head: Aug. 6, 1996

Salary: $80,759

Appx. cost of severance: $53,839

---

DIANE DOWNS

Animal Services

Hire date: Nov. 10, 2003

Became a department head: Feb. 24, 2007

Salary: $57,728

Appx. cost of severance: $19,243

---

YVONNE GENTRY

Disadvantaged Business Enterprise

Hire date: Dec. 4, 2004

Became a department head: Dec. 4, 2004

Salary: $73,056

Appx. cost of severance: $48,704

---

JACQUELINE HUMPHREY

Equal Employment Opportunity

Hire date: Nov. 9, 2009

Became a department head: Nov. 9, 2009

Salary: $75,127

Appx. cost of severance: $8,347

---

HEYWARD JOHNSON

Public Transit

Hire date: Dec. 29, 1980

Became a department head: Dec. 30, 1996

Salary: $77,505

Appx. cost of severance: $51,670

---

MARK JOHNSON

Solid Waste

Hire date: Oct. 25, 2003

Became a department head: Oct. 25, 2003

Salary: $91,526

Appx. cost of severance: $61,017

---

ABIE LADSON

Engineering

Hire date: Nov. 24, 2003

Became a department head: March 10, 2007

Salary: $115,566

Appx. cost of severance: $38,522

---

ROBERT LEVERETT

Richmond County Correctional Institution

(also serves as an interim deputy administrator)

Hire date: Aug. 23, 1971

Became a department head: May 1, 1990

Salary: $94,398

Appx. cost of severance: $62,932

---

ROD POWELL

Human Resources

Hire date: Nov. 1, 2008

Became a department head: Nov. 1, 2008

Salary: $100,000

Appx. cost of severance: $22,222

---

GERI SAMS

Procurement

Hire date: Jan. 29, 1990

Became a department head: Dec. 30, 1996

Salary: $88,698

Appx. cost of severance: $59,132

---

ROB SHERMAN

License & Inspection

Hire date: May 12, 1997

Became a department head: May 12, 1997

Salary: $77,129

Appx. cost of severance: $51,419

---

PHIL WASSON

911 Center

Hire date: March 27, 1972

Became a department head: June 24, 2000

Salary: $79,881

Appx. cost of severance: $53,254

---

CHESTER WHEELER

Housing & Development

Hire date: April 21, 2007

Became a department head: April 21, 2007

Salary: $102,434

Appx. cost of severance: $34,145

---

TOM WIEDMEIER

Utilities

Hire date: Nov. 28, 2009

Became a department head: Nov. 28, 2009

Salary: $115,666

Appx. cost of severance: $12,852

---

DONNA WILLIAMS

Finance

Hire date: July 30, 1979

Became a department head: Nov. 17, 2007

Salary: $113,300

Appx. cost of severance: $37,767

---

HOWARD WILLIS

Fire Department

Emergency Management Agency

(serves in two roles)

Hire date: March 15, 1974

Became a department head: March 15, 2003

Salary: $101,383

Appx. cost of severance: $67,589

EXCEPTIONS

How the policy applies becomes murky and inconsistent.

Of the city's department heads, five answer directly to the Augusta Commission rather than the city administrator, and the administrator doesn't have power to hire or fire any of them. They are: the city administrator himself, the city clerk, the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise coordinator, the Equal Employment Opportunity coordinator and the city attorney.

Of those, two have or had separate contracts calling for six months' pay and benefits if fired without cause, regardless of their length of service.

One was former General Counsel Chiquita Johnson, whose position is now open.

The other is City Administrator Fred Russell.

Mr. Russell began his sixth year as a department head Saturday, so he would be entitled to six months' pay and benefits regardless.

FRED RUSSELL

City Administrator

Hire date: Jan. 7, 2002

became city administrator: Jan. 15, 2005

Salary: $136,359

Appx. cost of severance: $90,906

IN A GRAY AREA

Three people on the city payroll classified as holding "Senior Executive Service" positions, however, answer to other boards, which are funded by the city government. They are: Board of Elections Executive Director Lynn Bailey, Augusta Regional Airport Director Gary LeTellier and Daniel Field Airport Manager Edward Toney.

The same would also apply to the Board of Assessors' chief appraiser, a vacant position since the resignation of Calvin Hicks.

Mr. Powell said he isn't sure if these positions would be covered by the severance policy, and that it probably would only be determined in the event of a termination.

Regardless, Mr. LeTellier, who was hired by votes of both the Augusta Aviation Commission and the Augusta Commission, has a contract guaranteeing him six months' severance pay and benefits up front.

Mrs. Bailey, who answers to the Board of Elections, said that if the policy applies to her she wasn't aware of it. She said she has no separate contract with the board. Mr. Toney, hired by votes of both the General Aviation Commission and the Augusta Commission, said he has no contract either, that he's considered a regular city employee and he wasn't aware of the severance policy when he was hired.

LYNN BAILEY

Board of Elections

Falls under: Board of Elections

Hire date: May 16, 1988

Became a department head: April 15, 1993

Salary: $76,077

Appx. cost of severance (if the policy applies): $50,718

---

GARY LETELLIER

Augusta Regional Airport

Falls under: Augusta Aviation Commission

Hire date: Jan. 11, 2010

Became a department head: Jan. 11, 2010

Salary: $130,000

Appx. cost of severance (by contract): $86,667

---

EDWARD TONEY

Daniel Field

Falls under: General Aviation Commission

Hire date: Jan. 11, 2010

Became a department head: Jan. 11, 2010

Salary: $41,877

Appx. cost of severance (if the policy applies): $4,653

Source: Augusta Human Resources Department

-- By Johnny Edwards and Sandy Hodson, staff writers