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Ex-Forest Park City Manager John Parker denies retiring, says he was forced out by Mayor David Lockhart

Mayor counters with his own version of events

Former Forest Park City Manager John Parker

Former Forest Park City Manager John Parker

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Forest Park Mayor David Lockhart

FOREST PARK — Former Forest Park City Manager John Parker said this week he didn’t retire in June but was forced out by Mayor David Lockhart.

Parker was feted with a reception June 28, but now he is saying he didn’t retire but was told by Lockhart to leave or be fired.

“He came to my office with City Attorney Steve Fincher about my contract and told me they felt it wasn’t legal,” said Parker. “He told me they’d give me three months severance pay and I’d retire or they’d let me go with ‘no dinner, no severance, no nothing.’”

Parker opened up to Clayton News Daily on several issues. After Lockhart was seated in May, council members fired the city’s attorneys and elections superintendent, and Public Works Director Mike Gippert and Parker retired.

The controversy resulted, in part, to Gippert filing ethics complaints against Lockhart and three members of council, excluding Mayor Pro Tem Linda Lord.

Lockhart is seeking re-election and is being challenged by Gippert and former Mayor Pro Tem Sparkle Adams.

Prior to controversy, Parker said he thought his relationship with the new mayor was cordial. The two men and their families attend the same church and Lockhart teaches Parker’s grandchildren in Sunday school.

Parker said he has enjoyed the respect of officials in Clayton County for nearly two decades. He’s worked as a Clayton County sheriff’s deputy and also as city manager in Morrow. When he returned to Forest Park in 2006 for his third stint as city manager in 19 years, he said the city was in the red and owned no properties. He said he worked hard to reverse that and was stunned to be forced out.

“After they offered me three months severance pay, I countered with six months and they agreed,” said Parker.

Lockhart disagreed with that version of events.

“I did meet with Mr. Parker prior to his decision to retire,” he said. “I had understood that he did not intend to serve out the duration of his contract. When I asked him his intentions, he indicated that he would be satisfied to resign immediately, provided that the city pay him in full for the remainder of his contract.”

Lockhart said he reviewed Parker’s hiring and determined that it was not done according to the city’s charter. He also said it wouldn’t make financial sense for the city to pay off his contract in full.

“I did point out that his contract was granted at a special meeting (in 2006), that his contract was not on the published agenda, and that it was added by an amendment proposed by Ms. Lord,” he said. “According to our charter, the only matters that may be addressed at a special meeting are those which were on the published agenda.”

Lockhart said Parker is the one who suggested he would resign in exchange for six months severance pay.

“I told him that if he decided to resign, I would ask the council whether they would be in favor of doing so,” he said. “The next morning, he called me with his resignation, and thereafter, the council — without my vote — elected to pay him for six months.”

That vote was made at the July 1 regular city council meeting, three days after Parker’s retirement reception was held in council chambers. Parker said only employees were allowed and that his supporters were turned away at the door.

His wife, daughter and grandson attended. Several residents also attended but didn’t participate except to wish Parker well.

Lockhart said he wasn’t responsible for anyone denied attendance.

“I did not see anyone denied entrance,” he said. “Afterward, I did hear rumors that it happened, but if it did, it was without my prior knowledge.”

Lockhart said, like Parker, he was looking forward to working together.

“Upon taking office, I had high hopes of working closely with Mr. Parker,” he said. “Early on, we did have some growing pains, but I thought we were working through them. Those issues related primarily to receiving information from him, and specifically related to the millions of dollars we had spent on several properties that we were not using.”

The two men also differ on Lockhart’s opinion about Gippert’s future with the city. Gippert has said he “saw the handwriting on the wall” and opted for early retirement over possibly being forced out.

“He told me he didn’t like Mike Gippert and wanted him gone,” said Parker. “I told him I couldn’t fire him for no reason. He said Georgia is a work at-will state and wanted to know why Mike couldn’t be fired. I told him I still needed a reason to fire him.”

Parker said Lockhart “didn’t like that answer.”

“He told me he didn’t want Mike to draw another paycheck from the city,” he said. “I offered to talk about it with David but he had to end the conversation. I tried to find out what Mike did to make him mad.”

But Lockhart said he was looking forward to working with Gippert, providing a copy of an email he sent to Parker as proof stating as much.

“As is apparent from my email to Mr. Parker, I had no desire to terminate Mr. Gippert,” said Lockhart. “Prior to taking office, I did indicate my displeasure with Mr. Gippert to John Parker. However, I passed an invitation along for Mr. Gippert to call me to discuss the matter, and he did.”

The “displeasure” concerned the city’s recycling program. Lockhart said he disagreed with Gippert’s strategy to “go into the schools and teach the children to shame their parents.”

“Teaching children often does flow to parents, but children should honor their parents, and shaming them is the exact opposite,” said Lockhart. “Families are the basic building blocks of society. Families already face enough pressures and destroying them from the inside by teaching children to shame their parents will be counterproductive to a healthy community.”

Lockhart said he also disapproved of the recycling program because the trade-off for reducing trash pick-up from twice to once each week was supposed to be that the city would earn substantial revenue from recyclables and reduce the waste fees charged to residents and businesses.

“Those revenues have fallen far short of what we were led to believe would be realized,” he said. “Accordingly, on the business side, it does not appear that we received the benefit for which we bargained. I have no objection to recycling — I have done it since I was a child.”

After retiring, Gippert filed three complaints alleging ethics violations. The Ethics Board voted earlier this month to dismiss them. However, that decision was also controversial because the members are political appointments and the chairwoman, Pat Cooper, is a Lockhart supporter who actively campaigns for him.

Parker said the allegations lodged by Gippert are true, despite the board’s ruling.

“Those ethics complaints are true,” he said. “Every one of them is true. Now, to what level of a violation they are, I am incapable of administering that opinion. But a non-biased hearing officer should have been appointed to review the evidence and testimony given by all of the parties involved and a recommendation given under the legal ramifications of the law.”

The complaints involved allegations Lockhart gave orders to employees, in violation of the city’s ordinances. Lockhart said the board made the right decision.

“Regarding the frivolous ethics complaints that Gippert filed, they are all without merit,” he said. “I never gave orders to any city employee.”

Parker said that, overall, he thinks Lockhart acted hastily in effecting change over the past six months.

“I certainly recognize and support the system implemented when newly-elected officials are installed,” he said. “However, I feel it’s in the best interest of the people who elected the officials to allow them time to become familiar with projects, programs and processes that have worked for the community and should continue to be further developed within the overall system.”