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Planning director fires back
Lawsuit contends rights were violated
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Forsyth County News

Forsyth County's planning director is suing the county for reportedly violating his rights under the Georgia Whistleblower Act.

Filed Friday, the lawsuit by Jeff Chance contends that Planning Commissioner Brant Meadows threatened to "destroy" him after the two disagreed over an administrative decision on a conditional use permit application.

Chance ruled that a permit issued in 2000 to United Recycling covered the requested use for an open storage yard and recycling center off Friendship Road.

The site is in District 1, which Meadows represents on the planning commission and in which he is seeking the county commission post being vacated by Charles Laughinghouse.

When Chance informed county officials, they acknowledged the decision was correct, according to the complaint, which also states,

"Laughinghouse told Mr. Chance to reverse his decision so that Mr. Meadows would back off from his threats and the whole matter would go away."

Chance's original written account of the events, sent to the county manager on April 28, states that he independently decided to reverse the decision "because of a lack of specificity ... with the old CUP."

However, Eric Chofnas, Chance's attorney, said when Chance reported "illegal activity," his rights as a public employee were violated by county officials, who acted outside their official capacities.

"Even though they knew that the decision was correct and that Meadows had absolutely no legal authority to make these demands, Mr. Laughinghouse failed to back him up, [he] chose to act based on political considerations rather than comply with his legal duty," Chofnas said.

Chofnas said the violation of the whistleblower act is the county's "retaliation against Jeff for reporting illegal activity," which led to an investigation into his management practices and e-mails.

The probe began after Meadows sent a letter to the county detailing what he found after an open records request for Chance's e-mails, as well as describing what he said was the director's "preferential treatment" and "patterns of behavior."

Chance has been on paid administrative leave since May 12 while county officials conducted the investigation, which found 12 violations of county policies.

The board is scheduled to take action regarding Chance's employment Thursday, which Chofnas said could impact the damages collected in the suit.

"It will increase the damages if they vote to terminate him," he said. "If they vote not to, if they come to their senses, the actions that have been taken against him to this point already constitute retaliation under the statute, and that would have to be addressed."

The complaint states that Chance, a 15-year county employee, is entitled to an injunction, reinstatement of his position and full salary, and compensation for lost wages and damages.

"In my view, they're trying to crush Chance here," Chofnas said.

Meadows could not be reached for comment Friday.

County Attorney Ken Jarrard said he could not comment on pending litigation, but the county will file a response to the complaint within 30 days.

As for any decision based on the investigation into Chance, Jarrard said "the board has the full range of options available."

Laughinghouse, who declined to comment on the lawsuit before reviewing it, said he didn't know if the commission would make a decision Thursday.

"Hopefully, the board will be looking at all the factors [of the investigation] and not paying attention to the political nonsense," he said.

The investigation, a copy of which the Forsyth County News obtained through the open records act, included 38 interviews with staff and a review of Chance's computer, cell phone and e-mail use.

According to the findings, Chance: misused county time for personal matters; engaged in inappropriate conduct at work; treated certain staff members with favoritism; and didn't follow county directives.

"I think I could have used a whole lot better judgment in these instances concerning e-mails and things," Chance said in his county interview. "I'll take whatever is coming to me in that regard, but there's a reason why we're sitting here and that's Brant Meadows."

Regardless of the reason, the investigation showed that Chance "continually used county cell phone, computer equipment and systems during working hours for personal use."

Attached materials contained numerous personal e-mails at work between Chance and his girlfriend, many of a sexual nature, as well as nonbusiness e-mails with other staff and friends.

His Internet usage summary found that 29 percent of his activity was visiting golf, news and media Web sites.

The director was also known for using profane language, both in e-mails and in conversation.

In Chance's investigation interview, he said he didn't use inappropriate words in company that didn't appreciate it, which was part of his management style.

"I motivate different people in different ways using different sorts of language," he said. "Some language more colorful than others."

According to the county's report, several employees interviewed said Chance not only spoke to people differently, but showed favoritism.

The report states that seven planning department employees took up to an additional hour of break time each day, at a cost estimated to the county between about $19,500 and $39,000.

"Although Mr. Chance states he was unaware of the practice, he regularly took the breaks with the individuals," the report states, based on employee interviews.

Several of those staff members were also found to have been sending personal and inappropriate e-mails, something the report confirmed "Chance knowingly allowed."

County Manager Doug Derrer said the county is also looking into the matters concerning other employees violating policies.

"Once we establish the extent other employees are involved and have definitively established there has been a violation of policies, appropriate action will be taken," he said.

Chance had also failed to forward to his employees an e-mail from Derrer in June of 2009 regarding county e-mail policy until early May 2010, prior to his leave.

Inspection division employees, some with up to 11 years in the planning department, reported that they have "rarely seen or even knew what [Chance] looked like."

The last finding stated that Chance "has regularly practiced putting golf balls in the planning and development department hallway during county time."

During his leave, Tom Brown, assistant planning director, has been filling in for Chance's duties.

Chance, a county employee since June 1995, was promoted to planning director in April 2003.