FOREST PARK — Two weeks after giving a former councilwoman a forum to announce a $35,000 settlement with the city, Mayor David Lockhart disavowed knowledge of the judgment.
When Lockhart suggested it was authorized by former City Manager John Parker, Parker took the floor to defend himself.
After both men spoke, it remained unclear who authorized the settlement with Karen-Brandee Williams.
“Did anyone on this council agree to a settlement or authorize a settlement?” asked Lockhart at Monday night’s regular meeting. No one spoke. “Nor did I. I knew nothing about it until she told us.”
Lockhart said he contacted the attorneys representing the city’s insurance carrier and was told Parker approved the settlement in a May 7 email. Lockhart said Parker approved recommending settling with Williams to avoid the legal costs of continuing to defend the case.
“No one knew about it, no one authorized it,” said Lockhart.
Parker immediately took issue with the accusation but Lockhart made him wait to address the council while Lockhart talked about changes made in the city since he took office in early May. He pointed to the firing of the city attorneys as one of those changes needed because he said decisions were being made without council’s input.
“I could dwell on the bad facts but that doesn’t help anyone,” said Lockhart. “This thing with Ms. Williams’ settlement is an example of what the council didn’t know what was going on. We have new lawyers and a new city manager who are doing their best to keep you reasonably informed.”
Parker said as city manager, he could only make recommendations, not final decisions. He said he thought it financially prudent to settle with Williams for $10,000 to keep the city from incurring more fees from a protracted legal battle.
“We discussed $10,000 being less than what it would cost to go to court,” said Parker. “I felt there was nothing she actually deserved but it was cheaper on the city with the insurance premiums.”
Despite the May 7 email, which Parker admitted he sent, court documents show the $35,000 settlement was reached with Williams June 28 — Parker’s last day as city manager.
“That offer was made to the insurance company attorneys, which wasn’t communicated to me because I checked,” he said. “John Parker as city manager doesn’t have the authority to make or accept an offer. I can only make a recommendation. If the $10,000 was accepted, then it was up to the council to accept or deny it. I do not make that offer.”
Mayor Pro Tem Linda Lord said she didn’t remember a meeting where the $35,000 settlement was discussed.
“We didn’t want to give her $10,000,” said Lord.
Former Mayor Pro Tem Sparkle Adams was at Monday’s meeting and also voiced her opposition to settling with Williams.
“I wouldn’t have given her 30 cents,” she said.
Lockhart seemed at a loss as to who to blame.
“It got approved and we didn’t approve it,” he said.
“I didn’t approve it and certainly not for $35,000,” said Parker.
Lockhart said he will investigate whether or not the insurance carrier’s law firm approved the settlement without consulting with the council.
“If they consented to the settlement without authorization, we certainly have a course of action against the attorneys,” he said.
Williams sued the previous administration, which did not include Lockhart or Ward 1 Councilman Tommy Smith, in U.S. District Court for discrimination based on her alleged fibromyalgia.
She claimed the city discriminated against her when it refused to buy a special chair for her to use during council meetings. Instead, workers built a ramp to the dais so she could sit in her own chair.
The suit had languished seemingly without movement when Williams attended the Aug. 5 council meeting and asked to speak. Williams alerted the media and a newsman trained a camera on her after Lockhart gave her the floor to speak.
Williams then announced the $35,000 settlement and asked to return to her council seat. Williams is prohibited from seeking office for five years as part of her removal from office two years ago. Her seat, which has been vacant since her removal, is up for election this year.
Williams was not given an answer to her request.
The reasons she lost her council seat are unrelated to her lawsuit but Williams kept the two issues intertwined during her soliloquy. Williams took office representing Ward 2 in 2010. Shortly after taking office, Williams asked the city to buy an ergonomic chair to accommodate her alleged fibromyalgia.
About a year later, three residents filed 25 ethics violations against her, alleging theft and other wrongdoings. An independent hearing officer confirmed 15 of those violations, which led to council ousting Williams from office.
Williams was prosecuted on theft charges related to the ethics violations in Clayton County Superior Court under the First Offender Act.