By Kathy Jefcoats
FOREST PARK — Fired city attorneys Robert Mack and Joe Harris filed suit in Clayton County Superior Court Monday alleging wrongful termination by council members May 6.
Mayor David Lockhart announced the filing at Monday's regular monthly meeting and vowed to continue termination proceedings against the Mack and Harris firm until the attorneys are satisfied.
"They don't like the way we terminated their services," he said. "So I'm calling a special meeting and we will terminate them as many times as it takes till they like the way we terminated them."
The filing alleges that the attorneys were appointed officers and therefore afforded certain rights under the city charter. Under Section 5.16, appointed officers can only be removed under certain conditions including incompetence, misfeasance or malfeasance; conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude; failure to possess qualifications of the office; knowingly violating the charter; abandonment of office or neglect to perform duties or failure for any other cause to perform the duties of office as required by charter or state law.
There was no reason given when Councilwoman Latresa Akins made the motion May 6 to amend the agenda to include action to reconsider the attorneys. However, after that vote and again during Monday's meeting, Akins said she "felt like" the attorneys solely represented City Manager John Parker and that they withheld information from council members.
City to investigate attorneys
Lockhart said Monday that next week's special meeting would be an investigative hearing and told newly-appointed City Attorney Steve Fincher to go after attorneys fees should the city prevail against "possible frivolous litigation."
"If it's possible, you are so instructed," said Lockhart. "They should pay you instead of our residents."
However, also in question is the validity of the vote itself. Under the city charter, a motion to terminate must get five votes to pass, a holdover from when the council had seven members. When the charter was amended to reflect a five-body council, the vote requirement was not changed. It was amended to allow for a four-vote passage the day after the 3-1 termination vote was taken.
According to Georgia law, that amendment has to be submitted for preclearance under the 1965 Voting Rights Act within 45 days after it is signed by Gov. Nathan Deal. Until the amendment becomes official, the action to remove the attorneys required five, not four votes, according to the suit. Lockhart has no voting powers unless there is a tie. Ward 2 has been vacant since Karen-Brandee Williams was ousted by council members in July 2011.
Lockhart said he is looking for a unanimous vote on the issue next week, which seems unlikely based on Mayor Pro Tem Linda Lord's position. When Akins made the motion to reconsider the city attorneys, Lord was shocked and asked for time to discuss the issue. Lockhart spoke over her, calling for motions, seconds and votes. She reiterated her surprise Monday night.
"I didn't know anything was going on that night," she said. "When I tried to discuss it, I got shot down. That's my opinion. They've got to live with their decisions."
Lord is not named as a defendant in the attorneys' lawsuit.
Mayor defends firing
Lockhart said several times Monday that firing the attorneys appears to have been the right choice.
"It looks like a good choice," he said, "seeing as they are costing us money to sue us."
Mack wouldn't elaborate on the suit Tuesday. The case was assigned to Chief Judge Deborah Benefield, who has 10-30 days to set a hearing. Mack and Harris have represented Forest Park since 2006. Mack said they have been good advocates for the city.
"I would think every city would want attorneys to always stand up for what is right," he said.
Is city manager next?
The announcement kicked off a 50-minute heated confrontation by residents directed at Lockhart. Some residents said they fully expected Parker to be terminated Monday. Under the city charter, council members can fire the city manager but only the city manager can fire other department heads.
Resident Ann Keith asked Lockhart about Parker.
"Do you feel the city manger is not trying to do things for the city?" she said.
"Yes I do," he said. "But if he was 100 percent perfect, it's still important that city attorneys are not perceived as representing a single individual as opposed to the city itself."
Ray Goodman has lived in Forest Park 55 years, he said, and told Lockhart he was concerned about the start of his administration.
"This is not the way we want our city to be looked at by other people," he said. "Why not discuss this as a group before making a move? As a form of etiquette?”
Lockhart said it was a matter of tactics.
"I'm not looking forward to any surprises tonight," he said. "Of course, if you don't come to every meeting and then show up, you could be surprised."
Goodman said a council member should not be surprised as Lord was by "something that major."
Will strip clubs return?
Keith also wanted to know if Lockhart was working to bring the adult entertainment centers, known simply as strip clubs, back into Forest Park. Pink Pony South and Crazy Horse Saloon were closed at the end of 2011 after public hearings exposed alleged criminal activity inside the two clubs.
"All the work that was done to get rid of adult entertainment, is that coming back?" she said. "What are you guys doing? I thought you were going to be a leader. You say you're a Christian with good morals. I'm not feeling it. I come to meetings all the time and I've not seen you often until the election. Do we really need to make all these changes?"
Lockhart simply responded by saying, “I haven't alleged anything with respect to having good morals."
He denied that the clubs were up for discussion.
"The strip clubs aren't even on the agenda," said Lockhart. "No one is talking about bringing back the strip clubs. Let time pass and see what happens. I'm not going to speak for all of Forest Park but if I had my choice, they'd all close for lack of business. I am of the opinion that if it is ever brought before council, the city ought to be heard on it."
Parker had other support in Yasmin Julio.
"I personally feel John Parker has been doing a great job," she said. "Listen to the citizens and not boot him out. We're not in the red, we're the only city in Clayton County not in the red. Someone is doing something right. You might be here for a little while but we're the ones making the decisions."
Elections official raises questions
The exchanges between Lockhart and residents grew testy when former Mayor Pro Tem Sparkle Adams stood to address him. Adams lost to Lockhart for mayor in an April runoff vote. After Adams commented, Lockhart asked her to sit while he replied but she refused.
"You'll need to sit or leave," he said, calling on Forest Park police Maj. Jamie Reynolds for enforcement. Reynolds told Adams to sit or leave the meeting. Adams said she would sit and remain at the meeting.
However, the biggest audience response in the form of applause and cheers came when Elections Superintendent Darnell Moorer addressed the board during the public comments portion of the meeting.
"I'm elections superintendent but I'm a citizen first," he said. "That position may be removed from me but I need to speak. I was very surprised to learn the attorneys had been fired. Yes, there are a lot of rumors. I was actually looking for the exit of the city manager tonight. The word is John Parker is next and he's done a fantastic job. We're in the black — not my black — the right black. He's a phenomenal fundraiser, he knows how to get a grant."
Moorer said he's been caught "off-guard" by Lockhart's definition of transparency. He blamed the Clayton County Democratic Party for instilling inexperienced council members to further the agenda of special interest groups, calling it the "No-cratic Party."
"We have a number of outside interest groups recruiting candidates for council and mayor," he said. "I don't have to call names. They find them registering to vote for the first time and suddenly they're first-time candidates. (Chairman) Kevin Thomas is paying their qualifying fees. You better do something about it now or this entire row will be filled with people from special interest groups."
Thomas has denied involvement in municipal elections, which are nonpartisan.