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Official: Evidence overwhelming for dismissal
Factors included time lost, volume of e-mails
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Forsyth County News


Forsyth County Manager Doug Derrer explained in testimony Thursday why he recommended that the county’s former planning and development director be fired.

Jeff Chance has appealed the county’s decision to dismiss him following an investigation that turned up several questionable, personable e-mails sent and received on his county account.

The hearing before the local Civil Service Board began Tuesday and will continue today.

Commission Chairman Charles Laughinghouse was expected to give his testimony later Thursday. Others on the witness list include County Attorney Ken Jarrard, Personnel Services Director Pat Carson and Planning Commissioner Brant Mea-dows.

According to evidence presented in the hearing, Chance had a relatively clean employment history during his 15 years with the county.

Derrer said the county commission made the decision to fire Chance, but sought his recommendation. To him, termination was appropriate rather than a demotion or other disciplinary action.

Some of the messages were of a sexual nature between Chance and his girlfriend, while others contained racially charged jokes. Many also used profanity, Derrer noted.

The manager said he also considered several other factors, including the volume of questionable e-mails that were found and the time it took to send and receive them.

In addition, he pointed out that other county employees had been involved and Chance’s failure to put a stop to the activity.

“The evidence was overwhelming to me,” Derrer said. “To maintain or retain a director ... at that level and allow that to happen was unconscionable to me and my recommendation was clear.”

Chance’s attorney, Eric Chofnas, called into question what appeared to be a confusing directive Derrer sent in June 2009 to Chance and other county department directors outlining rules about Internet, e-mail and cell phone use.

While Derrer stated in the letter that personal use was prohibited, he included in the directive the section of the county handbook, which addresses the matter. The handbook allows employees to use their “judgment and discretion” to limit personal phone calls.

“I understand where you’re going with that and this memorandum was the result of an action on my part to help assist employees with understanding the importance of use of county property, cell phones, Internet,” Derrer said.

“This county had received a lot of open records requests and I wanted to make certain that employees understood that when you use your cell phone ... it’s subject to open records.”

Derrer admitted taking the rule in the handbook “a bit further” by saying personal use was strictly prohibited.

Chance responded to the directive, asking for more clarification. At that point, Derrer said he went to Chance’s office and told him he expected department heads to comply with the directive.

In opening arguments Tuesday, Chofnas contended that Chance was fired for political reasons.

Denny Brown, one of the attorneys representing the county, maintained that Chance’s termination was the result of his failure to follow county policy.

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, the planning official, had threatened his job.

The threats were allegedly made when the two disagreed on a matter involving a conditional use permit for property on Friendship Circle.

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 Chance 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.