Employee’s alleged racial reference puts Gwinnett in spotlight. Again.

Staff members say he made the remarks at a county function.

A newly exposed, racially charged comment made by a manager in Gwinnett County’s community services department has thrust his employer back into what’s become a familiar — and troubling — spotlight.

With a series of incidents spanning less than a year, the government responsible for serving one of Georgia's largest and most diverse communities has become a popular setting for race-driven drama. The majority-minority county, with significant black, Latino and Asian communities, has a modern history of relative racial harmony. But it's seen a spate of racially charged incidents in 2017.

“What’s most disturbing is not just the expression of racism, but the … audacity of it,” said Gabe Okoye, who is the chairman of Gwinnett’s Democratic Party and an advocate for more diversity in the county’s government.

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The most recent incident resulted in the week-long suspension of John Register, an operations manager at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center. The center is part of the community services department, which is one of the county’s largest and also oversees divisions including animal welfare and enforcement, health and human services, parks and recreation and elections.

According to the suspension letter sent to Register on Monday from Tina Fleming, the director of the county’s Department of Community Services, Register served as master of ceremonies for the department’s annual award ceremony on Oct. 6.

According to Fleming’s letter, Register was leading the “raffle portion” of the event when he allegedly referred to aquatics manager Jim Cyrus, who is black, as “still the HNIC.” He used only the letters in the initialism, which often stands for “head [slur] in charge.”

“Several” staff members heard what Fleming described in her letter as a reference to a “derogatory racial slur,” and at least four later complained to their supervisors.

“Your behavior reflected unfavorably, not only on this Department, but on the County as an employer,” Fleming wrote. “While your comments may not have been intended to be offensive, they in fact were as evidenced by complaints received thereafter.”

Register is serving his suspension this week and is not receiving pay, Gwinnett spokesman Joe Sorenson said. Register is not a merit employee so “there will not be any kind of hearings regarding the matter,” Sorenson said.

“Mr. Register, it is critical that all of our employees adhere to the policies and guidelines relating to non-discriminatory practices,” Fleming wrote in her letter. “

Attempts to contact Register were not successful Wednesday.

In January, county Commissioner Tommy Hunter sparked uproar — and triggered an ethics complaint and a formal public reprimand — after writing a Facebook post calling civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis a "racist pig."

Less than three months later, two white Gwinnett County police officers were fired and arrested after cellphone videos shot by bystanders showed them kicking and striking a black motorist during a traffic stop.

In August, part-time Gwinnett County Magistrate Judge Jim Hinkle resigned after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution exposed Facebook posts in which he compared Confederate monument protesters to terrorists and shared other anti-Islamic thoughts.

Gwinnett County has never had a non-white member on its Board of Commissioners or Board of Education, a fact highlighted in an ongoing federal lawsuit that alleges the way the districts are drawn dilutes minority voting strength.

Gwinnett County Administrator Glenn Stephens said Wednesday that “each of [the county’s] nearly 5,000 employees have the opportunity on a daily basis to demonstrate to our diverse community that race is irrelevant to the services provided by this organization.”

“We likewise have a strong track record of dealing appropriately and expeditiously with behavior that is found to be a violation of our ordinances or policies,” Stephens said in an emailed statement. “Our management team has done just that in this situation.”

Attempts to contact Cyrus, the man Register referred to, were also unsuccessful. But it appeared he may not have been too offended by his colleague’s remark.

The public version of Register’s Facebook page showed several interactions between him and Cyrus — including one three days after the incident in which Cyrus posted an image on Register’s wall.

“You know that little thing inside your head that keeps you from saying things you shouldn’t?” the image said. “Yeah, I don’t have one of those.”

The post appeared to have been deleted after initial media reports about Register’s suspension.

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