At Issue: Should government employee contacts face public scrutiny?

An extraordinary severance agreement between Avondale Estates and its City Manager Clai Brown has left a lot of local folks scratching their heads. But it also raises a larger question about a little known state law.

Brown resigned as city manager on Dec. 6 then un-resigned one month later. In between, it became known that his severance would pay $317,408.17 over the 12 months after he left in February — big bucks for a town of 3,600. In fact it comes to a whopping 9 percent of the city’s anticipated 2018 expenditures.

Most remarkable, and practically unheard of, Brown can walk away from his job for any reason and get a full payout.

It raises the question of who authored such a sweet deal and how it slipped through the scrutiny of city attorneys.

Severance clauses aren’t unusual for city managers who, in council-management systems, are essentially CEOs. Typically severance amendments are seldom discussed in public forums. Given this case, that custom likely needs changing, not only in Avondale but in all Georgia cities.

But there is also the commission’s role in all this. Three current commissioners, though not on the board in February 2015, when the severance first surfaced, voted on renewing Brown’s contract in 2016 and 2017. All three say they never saw the severance amendment until a month ago.

Why?

One of a commission’s primary jobs is hiring a firing the manager. Every year that contract is updated, they should make sure to read it all.

When newspapers make an open records request on a contract, as the AJC did with Brown’s, they typically ask for all amendments and supplementary materials. Why didn’t the three Avondale commissioners do the same?

Either they weren’t doing their job or the amendment was purposely hidden from anyone’s perusal.

Brown rescinded his resignation on Jan. 11 when the board said they wouldn’t honor his severance. In doing so they cite Official Code of Georgia Annotated § 36-30-3 (a) “One council may not, by an ordinance, bind itself or its successors so as to prevent free legislation in matters of municipal government.”

“[That law raises] the specter that any agreement with any employee can be cancelled at any time,” said Nancy Pridgen, an Atlanta employment attorney specializing in severance agreements. “It almost allows a city to agree with a severance on one hand and take it away with another.”

What do you think? Should employment contracts of high-ranking local government employees be part of public discussion? Or is the Avondale situation an anomaly and everything generally works out well? Send responses to communitynews@ajc.com.


LAST WEEK: SHOULD ALL SCHOOLS OFFER DISTANCE LEARNING DURING SNOW DAYS?

With Gwinnett and Forsyth among the only school systems in the state offering distance learning when schools are closed for unexpected emergencies such as weather, many parents praised the administrations for finding and way to keep learning going. Others criticized them for handing out busy work. We asked readers if distance learning is an effective learning tool.

Here’s what some readers had to say:

DL is a not a practical concept, especially for elementary students. My son needs to be in school for the dynamics therein; namely, structure, routine and camaraderie. There is nothing in math, spelling or writing that my son doesn’t already know before he gets to school. Yet being there IN school, practicing those concepts is what he needs for his future success. My son is not exceptional. Most students already know as much. Thus the school system providing concepts without the structure, routine and camaraderie is of little value, and mostly a nuisance (We already have a structure and routine while at home, why upset that?)

A valid retort to this would be, "but what about the children who are behind or need the help?" I would respond that they are likely that way due to home circumstances that don't or can't emphasize and prioritize education, thus they are unlikely to use this system at all anyway. — Billy M. & Yan L.

I wanted to make a comment on the digital learning days imposed by Gwinnett county on its students recently. The first digital learning day was Monday January 8th when a possible ice storm was going to hit Atlanta which caused schools to be cancelled and created our first digital learning day. At first, I was pissed. I run a small business from a home office with a 16 month toddler at home with me and couldn't believe that now I also had to teach my 2nd and 4th graders online, but you know what? I wasn't so bad and it was a little fun. By the second and third digital learning days, I was glad they were home safe with me and we had a fun time learning together. I truly enjoyed getting a hands-on perspective of what they have been learning in school and enjoyed being with them. The experience made us closer. It also gave us something to work on and achieve that was not sitting idle on our tablets or watching TV. If parents are forced to be home with their children due to the weather than implementing a digital learning day is the best way to keep the school year running along. However, what truly needs to happen are better decision making by the higher ups who cancelled school to the point of needing digital learning days. I know our county is large and if one school is effected by the weather than we all are. Perhaps changing that first would help reduce a county wide school shut down. We spent too many days at home this year for weather that never occurred. — Shana Cooper

Busy work is better than no work at all. What would the students, otherwise, be doing with their time? Teaching students how to use and learn from technology is a valuable lesson. I applaud the Gwinnett and Forsyth School Systems for implementing these programs. It would be interesting to do a follow up surveys with students and parents about the program's impact and effectiveness. — Jerry Schwartz, Alpharetta

I think that having lessons that students can work on at home during snow days or other weather-driven days off from school are a great idea. Tying the lessons to the weather would make the work even more interesting to the students. Math related to the temperature changes, writing about fun in the snow, etc. are possibilities.

Of course not everyone has WiFi and some may lose power in a storm so it probably can't be mandatory but I think there are seeds of potential there. — Margaret Wood, retired teacher

Pamela Miller for the AJC