By Joel Hall
This week, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners closed the book on the lawsuit between the Sheriff's Department and the deputies who were fired when Victor Hill came to office in January 2005.
On Tuesday, the board passed an ordinance to amend the county's public employee retirement system in order to allow Hiram Massengale, Michael Maddox, and Larry Bartlett -- all former sheriff's deputies who were fired before they could receive their full retirement benefits -- to participate in the county's pension program.
According to Jack Hancock, the lawyer representing Clayton County in the lawsuit, one of the stipulations of the settlement was that the county had to find new jobs within the government for the 27 deputies involved in the lawsuit.
Due to the tenure of Massengale, Maddox, and Bartlett at the time they were fired, however, the county was unable to find jobs that could pay them at a comparable pay grade, he said.
Due to the unavailability of jobs within the county, the three deputies reached an agreement with the county, which would allow them to retire early and use a portion of their settlement to be paid in a monthly pension.
"By amending the [county's retirement] plan, we were able to allow them to buy up their benefits to the maximum amount," said Hancock. "It didn't cost the county any more money than if we had just settled with them, but it did keep us from having to find them a job."
Under the current agreement, Massengale, Maddox, and Bartlett will be paid $5,141.09, $4,685.89, and $5,326.17 per month, respectively, for an indefinite period of time.
Commissioners expressed a range of sentiments about the ordinance, from exhaustion to relief. Mostly, they wanted to move on from what one commissioner, Sonna Singleton, said has been "an ugly stain on the county."
"We have too much to focus on ... code enforcement, public safety. I'm really glad that this is over, but I am really ready to move on," she said.
"This issue has been with the county since my first day in office," said Wole Ralph. "It was the first issue that I was forced to deal with. It is an issue that has defined most of the last three or four years ... that has been talked about around the region."
"The potential impact of a lawsuit could have been devastating to the county," he continued. "It was necessary to find a way to make as little damage as possible. When you look at all of the possibilities, this was the best option."
Eldrin Bell said that while the ordinance allows the county to move forward from the settlement of this lawsuit, he didn't believe that the matter is over, suggesting the possibility of future lawsuits. He said the total bill for the settlement and litigation, so far, has cost the county close to $10 million.
"It's unfortunate, but it's a reality of what we have to deal with," he said. However, "[the ordinance] allows us to get all of those issues settled and to make sure that all of the employees injured by the sheriff's actions are protected."
When asked about Hill's handling of the lawsuit, Bell declined comment, but added, "the public knows who they elected. I think the sheriff's actions are predictable. His behavior ... nothing has changed."
"Whether you agree with the sheriff's initial reaction or you don't agree, it's sad that the taxpayer had to pay the price," Singleton said.