Clayton Commission facing lawsuits after internal conflicts get personal

Clayton taxpayers are on the hook for thousands of dollars in legal fees because of two recent civil lawsuits filed by current and former staff against members of the county commission.

Clayton Parks and Recreation staffer Brandon Turner, the son of Commission Chairman Jeff Turner, is suing Commissioners Felicia Franklin and Alieka Anderson in Clayton County court for slander. The suit is in connection to statements the two commissioners made about a past criminal conviction against Brandon Turner that was later expunged.

Meanwhile, former county CFO Ramona Thurman Bivens has filed a federal suit against Franklin, Anderson and Commissioner Gail Hambrick for allegedly violating her First Amendment right to free speech by voting to fire her last summer.

Bivins, who now is the CFO for Douglas County, filed her suit in October. In it, she alleges her termination was in retaliation for her husband’s support of a Clayton Commission candidate who Franklin, Anderson and Hambrick opposed.

“The political speech and political association of Plaintiff’s husband constituted association and speech as a citizen on matters of public concern, which are protected by the First Amendment,” the lawsuit says.

Both suits come as Clayton County officials have dominated recent news cycles because of criminal legal proceedings.

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill was convicted in October on six of seven federal charges of violating the civil rights of detainees in the Clayton County Jail by strapping them into restraint chairs as a form of punishment. He will be sentenced in February.

Mitzi Bickers, Hill’s chief of staff, was sent to prison at FCI Marianna in Florida earlier this month to serve a 14-year sentence on charges related to the bribery scandal at Atlanta City Hall. Bickers, a former Atlanta city official, was convicted in March of conspiracy to commit bribery, money laundering, wire fraud and other charges.

Earlier this month, the Clayton Commission voted 2-1 to pay up to $375 an hour for Cumming-based attorneys Jarrard & Davis to represent Franklin in the Bivins lawsuit.

Franklin and Hambrick voted for the fees while Commissioner Demont Davis voted in opposition. Commissioner Anderson and Commission Chairman Jeff Turner were absent.

Outside counsel for Hambrick and Anderson have not yet come before the board.

Turner said each commissioner is allowed to seek an attorney whose fees are paid by the county in lawsuits concerning official duties.

“Each commissioner has their own attorney, and we have cap for how much we pay them,” he said, which is about $250 an hour.

Carol Yancey, a Clayton County citizen and longtime critic of the board, said it is ridiculous for Clayton to spend taxpayer dollars on petty squabbles between the board and staff or former staffers.

“I’m not happy,” she said. “That’s their irresponsibility, their negligence. Why do we literally have to pay for it.”

The issues began in June.

Franklin, Anderson and Hambrick voted June 7 to not renew Bivins contract at the end of the month. Then they fired her in a second vote.

Bivins, who said she had received solid performance evaluations during her nine-year tenure with Clayton County — including praise from Franklin, Anderson and Hambrick — argued in the lawsuit that the trio of commissioners soured on her because her husband backed board member Demont Davis, who was up for reelection.

Franklin, Anderson and Hambrick supported Davis’ opponent Janice Scott.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

After her termination, the commission blocked her request for unemployment and demanded that she return money for tuition the county had paid for her to attend Vanderbilt University for continuing education, despite her contract granting county-paid courses.

Bivins is seeking $85,000 in lost pay and unspecified damages against Franklin, Anderson and Hambrick.

Brandon Turner alleges in his lawsuit that Franklin and Anderson accused him of being a convicted felon in a series of emails in July that were copied to commissioners, the media and others. The emails asked the Clayton director of human resources if the county checked Turner’s background when he was hired in 2018.

Turner was convicted of robbery in 2008, but that conviction was expunged when he received First Offender Act status, paid $112 in restitution and had his 12-month probation sentence suspended.

An attorney for Turner demanded Franklin and Anderson retract their statements in cease-and-desist letters sent to both. The lawyer, David Will, filed the lawsuit in October after neither commissioner retracted the statements.