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Chance hearing gets under way
Testimony likely will extend into next week
Chance
Chance

 

Attorneys on both sides of a former Forsyth County planning director's fight to regain his job gave opening arguments in an appeal hearing Tuesday morning.

Jeff Chance is challenging the county's decision to fire him following an investigation that turned up questionable, personal e-mails sent and received on his county computer.

The hearing before the Forsyth County Civil Service Board is scheduled to resume Thursday and likely will stretch well into next week.

Chance's attorney, Eric Chofnas, said Tuesday his client had been a valuable employee whose past performance evaluations showed he had exceeded expectations.

"Unfortunately, what happened to him is he was caught up in a nasty political campaign and he was eventually terminated based on an investigation that was both biased and shockingly incompetent," Chofnas said.

The attorney maintained the decision to fire Chance began after he went against the advice of Commission Chairman Charles Laughinghouse in April.

Laughinghouse had suggested Chance agree with Planning Commissioner Brant Meadows, whom the chairman appointed, on a decision requiring that United Recycling apply for a conditional use permit for a Friendship Circle site.

Chance had determined the application was not necessary because a permit existed for the property.

Chofnas contended that Meadows didn't understand United had the right to withdraw its application. Furthermore, he wanted to force the company to seek the permit so he could use the issue in his campaign for the District 1 county commission post.

Laughinghouse, who represents District 1, chose not to seek a third term this year. Meadows did not win the Republican primary contest for the seat in July.

Chofnas said Laughinghouse, before an April 23 meeting on the issue, called Chance into his office "threw up his arms and said, 'Let's do it Brant's way.'"

"At that point, Jeff knew how it was going to turn out," said Chofnas, adding that Chance eventually went along with the chairman's suggestion.

Attorneys for the county offered a different version of events.

Denny Brown told the civil service board that Chance repeatedly failed to follow and inform employees of a policy prohibiting personal use of county computers, cell phones and other property.

His failure to do so came despite a memo from County Manager Doug Derrer detailing the rules, as well as warnings from Assistant Planning Director Tom Brown.

"He admits essentially that he had just dropped the ball and just hadn't done it," Denny Brown said of Chance. "Essentially, he just hadn't gotten around to it for over a year."

Denny Brown said e-mails found in Chance's county account, some which were racist and others sexual, triggered an investigation by the county personnel department.

The probe turned up 12 policy violations.

Denny Brown also said that it was learned through the investigation that Chance had given extended smoking and lunch breaks to some employees that cost the county between $19,500 and $39,000.

"There was also little interaction, if any, with department inspectors by Mr. Chance," he said.

The commission voted in August to fire Chance, who had been suspended with pay since May.

"I think it's up to this board, the third group in line to consider this, [whether it] will tolerate this type of behavior and should Mr. Chance have been terminated," Denny Brown said.

In addition to the civil service hearing, Chance has filed suit against the county, asserting that his rights as a whistleblower had been violated when the county launched the investigation.

The suit contends the investigation was in retaliation for Chance reporting that Meadows had threatened his job when the two disagreed on the United Recycling matter.

Chance contends in the lawsuit that Meadows told him he would "destroy him" if he failed to reverse his decision.

The county, in its response to the complaint, has denied the allegations.

The response states the county would've taken the same action against Chance in the "absence of (Chance's) alleged disclosure."

The county also contends Chance doesn't qualify as a whistleblower and the local government didn't take retaliatory action with respect to the Georgia Whistleblower Act.