Lawsuit challenging DeKalb commission’s pay raise vote gets new life

DeKalb County gadfly Ed Williams, during a recent interview with Channel 2 Action News. CHANNEL 2 ACTION NEWS

DeKalb County gadfly Ed Williams, during a recent interview with Channel 2 Action News. CHANNEL 2 ACTION NEWS

The Georgia Supreme Court has given new life to a lawsuit challenging DeKalb County commissioners’ vote giving themselves a hefty pay raise.

In an opinion published Friday, the state's high court found that a DeKalb Superior Court judge erred in dismissing some of the claims that local gadfly Ed Williams made in his lawsuit over the controversial 2018 vote.

While the Supreme Court did not rule on the merit of any alleged violations themselves, it found that Williams should have been permitted to pursue civil penalties against individual commissioners for allegedly violating the state’s Open Meetings Act. It also found that Williams’ request for an injunction to stop DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond from paying the new salaries was dismissed prematurely.

The case was sent back to DeKalb Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Adams to hash things out.

“I’m elated by the decision that the court made,” Williams said Monday. “I kind of expected that result, but it made me happy when it was actually rendered. It gave me some relief that two years of working on the case was not lost and wasted.”

County officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the Supreme Court’s findings.

The salary saga started in February 2018, when commissioners voted to give themselves a nearly 60% raise that increased their pay to $64,637 per year. The proposal was quickly introduced during a meeting without being listed on the agenda and without going through the commission's normal committee review process.

District 1 Commissioner Nancy Jester was the lone board member to vote against the raise.

Other commissioners said at the time that they deserved more compensation for the hours they devote to what are supposed to be part-time jobs.

The way the vote was handled outraged some DeKalb County residents, two of whom eventually filed complaints with the state Attorney General's Office. Attorney General Chris Carr determined that the vote violated the state's open meetings law, but declined to take action because the 90-day period to formally contest the vote had passed.

In August 2018, Williams filed a lawsuit alleging that the commission’s vote violated open meeting laws and that the salary ordinance was unconstitutional. Adams dismissed the suit but Williams appealed all the way to Georgia’s Supreme Court.

Law students at the University of Georgia's appellate litigation clinic helped Williams — who had been acting as his own attorney — argue the case in front of the high court late last year.

The opinion issued last week was a victory for Williams, but there’s still a long way to go.

While the Supreme Court ruled that individual commissioners don’t enjoy immunity from penalties under the Open Meetings Act, it will still be up to Judge Adams to determine if those violations occurred.

Adams also will determine if Williams has the legal standing to sue Thurmond, the DeKalb CEO. If Williams does have standing, Adams would then have to determine if Thurmond even has the power enact what Williams is seeking: a stoppage on payments of the commission’s higher salaries.

The timeline in which Adams will re-consider the case is murky. Courts across Georgia are closed for the foreseeable future due to concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

Williams said he’s confident he’ll get more good news, whenever a decision comes.

“The law is on my side,” he said. “The law has always been on my side.”

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