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Federal jury to get reverse-bias case, could cost College Park big bucks
(UPDATE: Jurors got the case Thursday and deliberated for three hours or so. They’ll resume at 9:30 a.m. Friday.)
More than a year ago, the city of College Park rejected settling a fired employee’s reverse-discrimination lawsuit for $740,000.
Now the city is in federal court, where a jury’s upcoming decision will determine whether that was the right call for the city’s pocketbook.
Christopher Jones, the city’s former director of economic development, sued after a three-member majority of the City Council voted in April 2004 not to renew his employment contract. The complaint alleges Jones, who now holds a similar position in Alpharetta, was fired so the majority-black council could replace him with an African-American department head.
Council members say insubordination and disrespect, not race, cost Jones his job.
The Georgia Interlocal Risk Management Agency, College Park’s insurer, wanted to settle the case last year for $740,000, with or without the council’s consent. City officials objected strenuously, threatening to sue the insurance company. Instead, the insurer paid the proposed settlement amount to the city to be spent on defending the case.
In U.S. District Court in downtown Atlanta, city officials this week rebutted Jones’s charge that he was fired because he was white. Council members Charles E. Phillips Sr. and Tracey Wyatt, and former member Cynthia Jones, all said race had nothing to do with the decision.
Phillips rejected claims that he made racial comments about Jones and others. Once, in a council discussion of development on Main Street, Jones alleges that Phillips said, “Can’t anybody but this white boy do this?”
“That’s ridiculous,” Phillips testified Wednesday. “No way I would say say anything like that. It’s ridiculous.”
Jones’ lawyer questioned Phillips at length about his statement in a deposition that he had “lost any confidence in [Jones] being able to work with this council, particularly this black council.” Phillips said he meant to say “black council members.”
It wasn’t Jones’s race, but his attitude, Phillips said. “He showed disrespect only toward the black council members. … The black council members were the only ones he had a problem with.”
City officials acknowledged that several white department heads were replaced with blacks after Jones’ dismissal.
Also Wednesday, former city manager J. Scott Miller acknowledged that he pleaded with the council in April 2004 to put Jones on probation rather than let him go. He said he did not see the council’s action coming; he had just given members a glowing evaluation of Jones’ performance and asked them to renew his contract and give him a raise.
The three council members who fired Jones refused to discuss probation or a severance package, Miller testified, but none ever said race was a factor.
Phillips said Jones had spoken disrespectfully to him at a November 2003 council meeting, and he believed Jones’ later apology was insincere. Ms. Jones, the former council member, said he had spoken disparagingly about some business owners and told her that someone had “bought” her council seat. And, Miller said, Wyatt took office in 2004 wanting Jones gone because he had recently blown him off at a business meeting.
City attorney Steve Fincher, called to the stand, said all those reasons would justify dismissal. Jones denies that many of the incidents ever happened.
Jones’ attorney, Arch Stokes, repeatedly brought up the disappearance from Jones’ personnel file of positive performance evaluations for 2003 and 2004, documentation of merit pay raises and Jones’ selection by Georgia Trend magazine as a rising star in business and politics. Also missing: the audiotape of the November 2003 meeting.
Where did this material go? No witnesses had an answer for that.
“Haven’t a clue,” Fincher said.
The trial resumed today with a final witness, closing arguments and jury deliberations.