The continuing saga of the Avondale Estates city manager’s employment status took another turn Thursday afternoon when City Manager Clai Brown announced he was rescinding his resignation. In an email sent to city commissioners and media outlets he said his change of heart was based on the decision made Tuesday, Jan. 9 by the city commission not to honor a severance clause of his employment contract.
The AJC received a copy of Brown’s contract through an Open Records Request. Unless he is fired “with cause,” Brown is to receive his entire base salary — $179,510.40 plus “full cash value for all accumulated but unused paid vacation leave and sick leave.”
According to the city that would have amounted to a total salary, base plus bonuses, of $203,408.57. That figure is already budgeted and doesn’t include another estimated $114,000 of accrued vacation and sick leave.
Brown never fully explained why he resigned in the first place, but there has been tension with the mayor and some commissioners about the 2018 budget – which still hasn’t been approved.
“While I am disappointed in the City’s failure to honor my contract, I will continue to do my job and provide the very best service to our residents and business owners,” he wrote.
On Dec. 6 to Brown abruptly gave notice and has insisted publicly for the past month that his decision to leave was final.
Mayor Jonathan Elmore told the AJC on Thursday morning that he was just a few days away from announcing Brown’s interim replacement. Elmore texted the AJC late Thursday afternoon saying that he couldn’t comment on the latest twist.
Once the details of Brown’s contract came to light, Elmore, who became mayor in March 2015, said recently that he didn’t know about the amendment until shortly after Brown’s resignation. He added had he been mayor at the time, “I would not have signed that document.”
Two other commissioners not on the board when that severance was approved — Brian Fisher and Adela Yelton — also said they didn’t know about the contract amendment.
The total due Brown comes to $317,408.17 which is about 9 percent of the city’s anticipated 2018 budget of $3,656,488. Avondale Estate’s 2018 budget has currently gone through five revisions and so far hasn’t been approved.
Larry Hanson, executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association, said Brown’s contract is rare — the common severance for a city manager is six months. Even more
unusual the stipulation that Brown’s severance pays out if he resigns for any reason.
“Typically, in executive contracts you have to resign for a good reason,” said Nancy Pridgen, an Atlanta employment attorney specializing in severance agreements. It could be changing job responsibilities, or change in control of an organization, or the office is re-locating. So if any one of those reasons are met, the contract is paid out.
“Never in 18 years of doing this,” she said, “have I seen a contact where an executive or key employee is allowed to quit for any reason and still get a payout.”
A governing body can challenge a severance, which is what Brookhaven did when City Manager Marie Garrett resigned in January 2016. She was due $350,000 severance plus benefits over nine months if the city followed through on firing her.
John Park, then and now a Brookhaven councilman, said that an employment attorney, city attorney and mayor mediated for 14 hours. In the end Garrett resigned and the severance package was reduced to $225,000.
But Pridgen thinks Avondale Estates would have little chance pulling a similar maneuver.
“They’d be hard pressed challenging it,” she said. “The contract’s a good one. It says right there, he can resign for any resign. Kudos to his lawyer.”