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Judge axes city manager's raise

By Ed Brock

The city of Forest Park and its mayor violated Georgia's Open Meetings Act when giving the city manager a raise after an impromptu meeting at a 2002 retreat.

Saying the city of Forest Park took a "cavalier attitude about the way its business was conducted" when it issued the raise, Clayton County Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Forest Park Councilwoman Debbie Youmans and her husband Robert Youmans.

"The evidence shows that, on this occasion, the public trust was violated in an attempt to expend public funds in a manner inconsistent with the law," Benefield wrote in the decision she filed on Tuesday.

The decision enjoined the city from paying City Manager Bill Werner the increased compensation without the council's approval and also requires the city to pay legal fees in the amount of $16,400.

Werner has not been receiving the raise since the lawsuit was filed.

In her lawsuit, Youmans contended that Forest Park Mayor Chuck Hall improperly gave Werner the raise after bringing it up to the council after they had finished the day's work at the Feb. 2, 2002 annual retreat at Lake Lanier Pine Isle Resort.

Hall violated the Open Meetings Act because the issue of the raise was not on the posted agenda for the retreat, and he brought it up after giving members of the public who were at the meeting the impression that they had to leave, Benefield said in her decision.

Also, there was no verifiable vote held on the raise under Robert's Rules of Order and Benefield dismissed defense arguments that Hall heard three council members say "yes" to the raise since three out of the five council members testified that no affirmative votes were made aloud. Benefield also said the decision to spend public money is too important an issue to be made under the "implied consensus" standard, meaning nobody, including Youmans, spoke against the raise during the meeting at the retreat.

Benefield also found that proper minutes were not kept of the meeting. She also dismissed the case against Werner himself, which would have required him to pay back to the city money he had already received from the raise, because Werner does not live in Clayton County and his case could not be joined with the case against the city.

Under Georgia law a person must be sued in the county in which he or she lives and the judge found there was no proven reason to alter this. Therefore she ruled that if the plaintiffs want to recover the $2,114 already paid to Werner they must file a separate suit in Fayette County where Werner lives.

Youman's attorney Bruce Millar said he had argued that the proposed raise and the money Werner had already received were joined, but that Benefield seemed to view them as separate issues.

Hall did not have much to say about the decision.

"We just have to abide by the judge's ruling," Hall said.

Hall said he didn't know if the council would be asked to reinstate the raise.

Youmans said she tried to call an executive session to properly address the raise shortly after it was issued but the mayor turned her down and then left town and would not return in time for her to resolve the issue before the 90-day deadline for filing the complaint.

She has no intent of suing Werner in Fayette County and she's glad this lawsuit is finished.

"This has been a horrible experience and I hope to never be in this position again," Youmans said.

In a statement Youmans said that the decision vindicated her argument that the city violated the Open Meetings Act in granting the raise and that the public trust had been violated.

"Trust is the key word that describes the appropriate relationship between a local government's elected officials, other public officials and their constituency," Youmans said. "I believe it is our duty to ensure that trust is rightfully restored for the good of the whole."

For most of 2003 the Forest Park council has been divided by a power struggle between Youmans and Council members Corine Deyton and Donald Judson and the remaining two Council members Henry Estes and Wes Lord and the Mayor. Judson, Youmans and Deyton, among other issues, have sought to fire City Attorney Jack Hancock as well as Werner.

Deyton said she supported the court's decision and insists she will not support "back room politics."

"(Hall) didn't have the right to do what he did," Deyton said. "I hope it will send a message to all elected officials that it's time for accountability."

The raise would have been a 5 percent increase of Werner's salary or an additional $94.39 a week and would be retroactive to Oct. 1, 2001, according to Youman's complaint.

According to the complaint, Werner received $3,964.76 for two weeks vacation time and on March 25 he received a $5,154.18 bonus, both of which were not properly voted on an approved by the council, according to the complaint.

Along with asking the court to enjoin the city from paying Werner the increased salary, the complaint asks that Werner pay back to the city $2,114.34 already paid to him plus the $3,964.76 vacation pay he received.

Werner could not be reached for comment.