City attorney to get more than $93,750

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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.

Comments (89) Add comment
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TroubIe
0
Points
TroubIe 01/06/10 - 02:29 am
0
0
does she get to keep the

does she get to keep the credit card for 9 months too?????

Emerydan
10
Points
Emerydan 01/06/10 - 02:33 am
0
0
Well well well.. not

Well well well.. not surprised that Fred Russell is the one making a boneheaded severance package offer. What is she going to sue for? This is ridiculou.. and more reason than ever that Stooge Fred needs to be sent packing along with The Banana

APiratesLife4Me
0
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APiratesLife4Me 01/06/10 - 02:37 am
0
0
Incredible. I hope she

Incredible. I hope she "forgets" a few dollars on her taxes this year. I think a reminder to the State and Federal Tax commisions (IRS) is in perfect order.

Emerydan
10
Points
Emerydan 01/06/10 - 02:40 am
0
0
Thanks Fred.. First Teresa

Thanks Fred.. First Teresa Smith.. now the Banana.

RoadKing
99
Points
RoadKing 01/06/10 - 03:10 am
0
0
make room for one more to the

make room for one more to the list of RC affirmative action failures ....

Emerydan
10
Points
Emerydan 01/06/10 - 03:13 am
0
0
What do we call Fred Russell?

What do we call Fred Russell? A "We couldn't get anyone better hire?"

Asitisinaug
3
Points
Asitisinaug 01/06/10 - 03:39 am
0
0
Ridiculous. Are the citizens

Ridiculous. Are the citizens able to file an injunction prohibiting such action because if so, we need Woody Merry to step forward. Anyone who deservers to be fired for cause should be, period. Same BS the school system did with their overpaid non-working Public Safety Director. Government not only takes more of our taxes than they should for unnecessary projects but they continually waist our money on crap like this. We could pay for 3 police officers or firefighters for a year instead of paying her for nothing.

Emerydan
10
Points
Emerydan 01/06/10 - 03:53 am
0
0
asitis... this is what

asitis... this is what happens when we let Russell "handle it".. he screwed up the Teresa Smith firing and now gives the store away to the Banana. Why is there a double standard for incompetence in Augusta. How much more of taxpayer money most Fred throw away until we run him out of town too?

concernednative
28
Points
concernednative 01/06/10 - 04:15 am
0
0
emerydan, you hit the nail on

emerydan, you hit the nail on the head. The people are only complaining about Ms. Johnson and Ms. Smith and some about Hatney. I wonder what there motives are. Not a single complaint about Fred Russell who should have been fired for the handling of Teresa Smith alone. He handled her firing more incompetantly than she ever was at her job.

concernednative
28
Points
concernednative 01/06/10 - 04:16 am
0
0
Has Jimmy Smith ever cast a

Has Jimmy Smith ever cast a vote opposite of Gratham?

Brad Owens
4097
Points
Brad Owens 01/06/10 - 04:41 am
0
0
This is a small price to pay

This is a small price to pay to get rid of her. This will save four times as much in BS legal fees.

JohnQPublic
5
Points
JohnQPublic 01/06/10 - 07:13 am
0
0
Owens is right. They messed

Owens is right. They messed up in hiring her and now we pay for it. Let this be a lesson to the commissioners for the next hire. Considering the total mistake in hiring Johnson, this bitter pill was the right thing to do. Move one. However, once again, the whole situation from hire to "urged resignation" was very, very poor stewardship of taxpayer's money. The hiring committee needs to think with their brains! What's going on downtown?

JohnQPublic
5
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JohnQPublic 01/06/10 - 07:15 am
0
0
"Ms. Johnson was fired from a

"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..." I wonder did she sue them for firing her?

ICSunshine
0
Points
ICSunshine 01/06/10 - 07:22 am
0
0
native, where have you been?

native, where have you been? "The people are only complaining about Ms. Johnson" There have been 10's, if not 100's, of posts demanding Fred's head. Maybe you are scanning posts with a jaundiced eye, you certainly haven't been reading them.

Bear - Lillian Smith
65
Points
Bear - Lillian Smith 01/06/10 - 07:29 am
0
0
Only in Augusta!! Pathetic

Only in Augusta!! Pathetic

my.voice
4593
Points
my.voice 01/06/10 - 07:46 am
0
0
The next decision the County

The next decision the County needs to make is terminating Fred Russells job. Augusta has got to stop making these bonehead decisions! Fire her! No pay, she stole from the City and is inadequate in her position.

Riverman1
78435
Points
Riverman1 01/06/10 - 07:54 am
0
0
Didn't I tell y'all $94,000 a

Didn't I tell y'all $94,000 a couple of day ago?

LEO
0
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LEO 01/06/10 - 07:56 am
0
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I hope the city sends Ms.

I hope the city sends Ms. Johnson a bill for the items they accuse her of purchasing inappropriately. If that's the reason she was fired, and they feel they were right, then what do they have to worry about? She knew what she was doing when she negotiated her severance package... she knew the commission has no cajones when it comes to potential litigation - she should, she was legal counsel during the Teresa Smith fiasco!

ICSunshine
0
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ICSunshine 01/06/10 - 08:04 am
0
0
Maybe when the X-Mart finally

Maybe when the X-Mart finally opens they will take pity on her and hire her as a cashier, or even better stockperson, as a gesture of thanks for all the money they have collected from the county during the litigation process.

littleguy
2
Points
littleguy 01/06/10 - 08:07 am
0
0
Riverman1
78435
Points
Riverman1 01/06/10 - 08:29 am
0
0
I'd also like to know exactly

I'd also like to know exactly what will be said when she applies for another job and they check here. Will all this be explained? Will we be factual and explain her shortcomings? Her severance package? Or are we going to give her a generally good recommendation that hides the truth? Someone needs to ask whoever handles the job references what will be said. They need to ask that person a few other questions while they are at it.

Windmill
0
Points
Windmill 01/06/10 - 08:34 am
0
0
In other business the

In other business the Commission replaced Don Grantham previous chairman of the Engineering Services Committee and close friend of Bill Kulke the Chairman of the State DOT, with Cory Johnson. Regardless of the bad blood between Grantham and others, Grantham is in the best position to arrange limited State DOT resourses for Augusta. The change of the Engineering Committee Chairman was a petty political move that just may come back to hurt Augusta. Come on guys, think of the County not yourself.

ron_rlw
1
Points
ron_rlw 01/06/10 - 08:56 am
0
0
The fact is the $93,000 has

The fact is the $93,000 has nothing to do with Chiquita Johnson ... it has everything to do with the lack of good judgement and documentation of her supervisors. If good judgement had of been used then she wouldn't have been hired and/or she wouldn't have gotten out of control. If her preformance (or lack thereof) had of been well documented she would have had no bases on which to demand any more than the minimun that was required by her contract. Now the question is ... will her supervision be held accountable?

Sweet son
9544
Points
Sweet son 01/06/10 - 09:08 am
0
0
Where is justus4, he usually

Where is justus4, he usually jumps in to defend all of Mr. Fred's "go home rich" packages.

disssman
6
Points
disssman 01/06/10 - 09:09 am
0
0
ICsunshine I thought a

ICsunshine I thought a Federal Judge made the decision about the X-Mart years ago before Chiquita was hired?

blues550
349
Points
blues550 01/06/10 - 09:10 am
0
0
Fred needs to follow the
Unpublished

Fred needs to follow the banana.

disssman
6
Points
disssman 01/06/10 - 09:11 am
0
0
Leo. You state that she

Leo. You state that she stole something. What was it she stole? Buying and using items for the office isn't stealing, if the iyems are still in the office.

fd1962
26
Points
fd1962 01/06/10 - 09:15 am
0
0
The Commission is certainly
Unpublished

The Commission is certainly off to a confidence-building start to the new decade. I suppose they'll now generously pay Atlanta attorney Ben Mathis to provide the next stooge for the position.

ron_rlw
1
Points
ron_rlw 01/06/10 - 09:17 am
0
0
disssman ... so far I haven't

disssman ... so far I haven't even seen any officials telling us that the expenses on the SAM's card was even outside of current policy. The more incriminating items was over spending her budget for Atlanta Illegal advice ... by a very large percent without going back and getting authorization ... which isn't exactly stealing ...

ICSunshine
0
Points
ICSunshine 01/06/10 - 09:19 am
0
0
dissman, the appeals in the

dissman, the appeals in the X-mart case continue and have been throughout her tenure.

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