Attorneys for Forsyth County’s former planning director began making their case Friday that he was fired for political reasons.
It was the first time since opening arguments that the Civil Service Board heard testimony asserting the August dismissal of Jeff Chance was for more than questionable actions or e-mail activity.
In the hearing, which spanned three days last week and will resume Monday, Chance is challenging the county commission’s decision.
For its part, the county contends Chance was dismissed following an investigation that turned up inappropriate on-the-clock actions, including e-mails Chance sent and received on his work account. Some of the correspondence was sexually suggestive and others racist.
The county has also argued that Chance failed to follow and enforce county policies and allowed some employees to take extended breaks.
The events leading to Chance’s termination appear to be rooted in an April dispute over a conditional use permit for property on Friendship Circle.
Attorney Emory Lipscomb, who has handled property issues in Forsyth County for some 40 years, told the board Friday that his firm represents United Recycling.
The company had applied for the permit, only to find one already existed for the site.
Lipscomb said Chance determined United did not need to apply for the permit and County Attorney Ken Jarrard had informed his firm that Chance had the authority to make the determination.
Lipscomb said other county officials, including Planning Commissioner Brant Meadows, agreed the permit was unnecessary.
Meadows later ran unsuccessfully for the District 1 county commission post.
Lipscomb said in a planning commission work session on April 20, the day after Meadows had told Lipscomb he didn’t think United needed to apply, Meadows was “very adamant that the (application) should go forward.”
“[He said] that there was a heinous use of the property that was intended there and that the planning staff had not done its job properly and that he wanted it to move forward and come before the planning commission,” Lipscomb said.
He said Meadows criticized the planning department staff, some of whom attended the work session, and berated them to a point that embarrassed the attorney.
Lipscomb explained the application was scheduled for a public hearing at the April 27 Planning Commission meeting. That hearing, however, wouldn’t happen because United planned to withdraw its request.
Lipscomb said Meadows became “very irate and striking out at those people that were involved in the process” when it became apparent that the hearing would be cancelled.
“That public hearing was three days before (Meadows) qualified to run for commissioner from this district and I don’t think that’s just a coincidence,” Lipscomb said. “I think that was going to be his kickoff platform to run for commissioner.
“Mr. Chance, by issuing his opinion that a conditional use permit was not necessary, removed the victim who was going to be slaughtered at that public hearing.”
Lipscomb said a “belligerent” Meadows called his office April 26 and began the conversation by personally attacking him.
“I responded to that and answered each of his accusations,” Lipscomb said. “What it boiled down to, he was trying to trick us into submitting to the public hearing.”
Lipscomb said on April 26 he also received an e-mail from Chance, notifying him that he had reversed his decision and that questions had been raised about what was allowed under the permit. It was not clear why.
Lipscomb said the planning commission allowed his client to withdraw the application with prejudice, meaning it could not reapply for a year.
Earlier in the week, the civil service board heard testimony that an investigation of Chance’s Internet activity began after Meadows filed an open records request for his e-mails.
Charles Laughinghouse, chairman of the county commission, testified Thursday that he had voted twice in 2006 against elevating Chance to the county manager position.
Laughinghouse said he did not feel Chance was qualified for the job and both votes, taken in executive session, were 3-2 in Chance’s favor.
“He came and asked me what he should do,” Laughinghouse said. “I told him the decision was his but there was a distinct possibility he would not be in that position after the first of the year.”
Commissioner Brian Tam and former commissioners Linda Ledbetter and Jack Conway voted to give Chance the job, while former Commissioner David Richard sided with Laughinghouse.
Commissioner Jim Harrell replaced Conway in January 2007.
In the years since, Laughinghouse said he has tried to help Chance, who has had problems in his personal life, including a divorce and two arrests for driving under the influence.
He said he asked Chance to come into his office April 23, just before a 3 p.m. meeting to discuss the United Recycling issue.
“I had made an effort to mentor him and counsel him to the best of my ability and to be a shoulder for him to cry on,” Laughinghouse said.
He said Chance told him he was OK, but said nothing about Meadows reportedly threatening him.
Laughinghouse said he also did not tell Chance to side with Meadows on the United Recycling matter, as Chance has contended.
The chairman said he thought the issue was resolved, because Chance had decided the permit application wasn’t necessary.
Still, Meadows kept raising questions about the validity of the existing permit.
Laughinghouse, who did not seek re-election this year, said he supported Meadows for the District 1 post in the Republican primary against eventual winner Pete Amos.
Amos had run against Laughinghouse in 2006.
Also last week, Pat Carson, personnel services director, testified before the board about the investigation and allegations against Chance.
She said some employees who were interviewed complained that Chance used profanity in the office and allowed others to do so as well.
Some also said that Chance had “favorites” who he allowed to take extended breaks. Her investigative report estimated the breaks cost the county somewhere between $19,500 and $39,000.
Her testimony is expected to continue Monday.
Meadows, County Attorney Ken Jarrard and Interim Planning Director Tom Brown are also on the witness list.
County Manager Doug Derrer took the stand earlier in the week, testifying that the evidence for Chance’s dismissal was “overwhelming” and the county couldn’t allow that type of activity to continue.
Chance, who had led the department since 2003, had an annual salary of $92,104.
The commission voted in August to fire him after he had been suspended with pay since May.
In addition to the civil service appeal, Chance has filed suit against the county under the Georgia Whistleblower Act.
He asserts that his rights were violated when the county launched its investigation, which Chance contends was in retaliation for reporting that Meadows had threatened his job.
The threats were allegedly made when the two disagreed on the conditional use permit for the Friendship Circle property.
Chance contends in the lawsuit that Meadows told him he would “destroy him” if he failed to go along with a decision to require the permit.
The county has denied the allegations. Its response states the county would’ve taken the same action against him in the “absence of (Chance’s) alleged disclosure.”
It also contends Chance doesn’t qualify as a whistle-blower and the local government didn’t take retaliatory action with respect to the Georgia Whistleblower Act.