By Kathy Jefcoats
FOREST PARK — Public Works Department Director Mike Gippert said the women accused of libeling Mayor David Lockhart didn’t write the anonymous document that alleges Lockhart used a racial slur during a recent Morrow event.
“This is a frivolous lawsuit because they didn’t publish this letter,” he said Friday. “I gave them a copy of the letter, which was left on my front porch along with about a dozen other residents. I shared my copy with them, they didn’t publish anything.”
Gippert said the women, Joy Trammell Church and Lenora Dove, read the letter and got upset because it details Lockhart’s attempts to fire Gippert.
“They were ill with the mayor because of him trying to fire me and thought everyone needed to know about it,” he said.
Gippert said the women don’t want to talk about the suit.
“They’re upset over the whole thing because it’s embarrassing for them,” he said. “They didn’t do anything except set this out there, they don’t know who wrote it. Now they have to get an attorney to represent them in an answer. They’re upset over that, too, having to get someone to respond to this.”
As an elected official, Lockhart has a tough case to make to prove libel, said Georgia Press Association legal counsel David Hudson. Hudson is considered an expert in the field of libel law.
“The mayor does indeed have to meet a very high standard,” said Hudson. “As a public official, he has to prove that what was published is not only false, but that the persons who published the information knew or suspected that it was false. He has to prove this by clear and convincing evidence.”
Lockhart is also not protected from speech considered to be opinion, he said.
“He would have no claim for anything that was published that falls into the area of opinion,” Hudson said. “Statements of opinion, as opposed to fact, are constitutionally protected.”
The women can prove their case by the testimony of witnesses who can attest to what the mayor said, said Hudson.
Surveillance cameras at city hall recorded the women walking to the front entrance and leaving the box of the copies on a brick planter just prior to Monday’s regular City Council meeting. One of them taped a sign reading “take one” and most residents attending the meeting did.
Resident Kimberly James called Lockhart’s attention to the document and provided him with a copy during the meeting. After reading it, Lockhart proclaimed it to be “lies and cowardice,” and denounced all the allegations it contained, including the one involving Gippert.
"Lies and cowardice,” said Lockhart during the meeting. “You will not say you saw it and heard it because they were never spoken. To the author of this trash, you are a coward and a liar because none of it is true. This is nothing but trash.”
However, Gippert said again Friday that the account pertaining to him is true and accurate.
“It’s true, he did try to fire me,” said Gippert. “He wanted me gone.”
Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Gippert tendered his retirement notice May 8 but left his end date open-ended to give the city time to hire a replacement.
Under the city’s charter, only the city manager can fire department heads. Only the city council can fire the city manager. Also, the mayor can vote only to break a tie.
In the suit, filed Wednesday in Clayton County State Court, Lockhart specifically takes issue with a paragraph alleging he used a racial slur in a conversation with another elected official during the National Day of Prayer breakfast at the National Archives. The suit uses that paragraph as the basis for his libel complaint although the entire document is attached as an exhibit.
The document touches on several allegations including that Lockhart has met with representatives of Galardi Enterprises to discuss changing the city’s ordinance to allow strip clubs to re-open, that Lockhart ordered City Manager John Parker to fire Gippert because Lockhart doesn’t approve of recycling or the city’s “going green” programs and that Lockhart used a racial slur during the Morrow event.
It also discusses the surprise firing of city attorneys Robert Mack and Joe Harris during the May 6 meeting. Lockhart won the office in an April 16 runoff against former Mayor Pro Tem Sparkle Adams. Rather than wait for the May 6 regular meeting to be sworn into office as is traditional for Forest Park city elections, Lockhart took the oath of office in private and presented the affidavit to Parker hours ahead of a special called May 1 meeting.