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Americus City Manager, Charles L. Coney, Terminated

Tracy K. Hall

Americus City Council had a call meeting on Wednesday, February 26, 2020. All of the council as well as City Clerk, Paula Martin and City Attorney, Jimmy Skipper were present. Karen E.Woodward, a partner in the Peachtree Corners based law firm of Cruiser, Mitchell, Novitz, Sanchez, Gaston and Zimet presented her findings after being asked to investigate complaints filed against Americus City Manager, Charles Coney.

Ms. Woodward investigated four complaints made by city employees dating between January 7 and February 4, 2020. Woodward says, “My summary notes all complaints, that are the subject of the investigation, are fairly minor and in my opinion none of them rises to the level of any sort of employment law violation.” Although there were some conflicts in the details of the complaints, Coney does not dispute any of the complaints.  Woodward went on to state the “complaints display an insensitivity and failure to behave in a professional manner. My opinion is that someone in the position of city manager should exercise better judgment.”

The report submitted to city council presented the complaints in chronological order, beginning on January 7, 2020.  In preparation for a leadership meeting made up of the department heads, Mr. Coney emailed an agenda including two links to videos the attendants were to watch. One of the videos was regarding problem verses solution focused thinking. In the video, the host gives an example of problem focused thinking which leadership found, “inappropriate, sexist and irrelevant.” Customarily, there is discussion following the videos presented in the meeting, however the summary reports department heads “were all so focused on the shock of this particular video” that none participated in discussion during the meeting. They did, however, comment among themselves after the meeting. There is no dispute Mr. Coney previewed and chose the video. Ms. Woodward agreed “that the video is sexist, as many of the department heads used that descriptor, and inappropriate to show in a work setting.”

The next complaint is dated January 23, 2020, an agenda setting meeting of the city council. City Clerk, Paula Martin, sits on the dais with the rest of city council to take minutes. At some point four of the city council members requested Mr. Coney to have her removed off the dais to lower seating as these four members found her “disruptive”. Ms Martin and Mr. Coney discussed her moving her seat, however Ms. Martin was out of the office for the January 23rd  meeting. Another city employee, Erica Johnson was to fill in for Ms. Martin. When asked to move her seat, Ms. Johnson stated it would make her job more difficult and she responded it was difficult to see and hear from the lower level. Ms. Johnson felt like the request was to “harass her.”  Before the meeting several citizens took seats close to where Ms. Johnson and Mr. Coney were seated. Mr. Coney sprayed Lysol in the vicinity of their seats, which embarrassed Ms. Johnson. According to Mr. Coney he had been ill and away from the office for sick time prior to the meeting. Spraying the Lysol was an effort to kill any germs he might be carrying. Ms. Woodward remarked on the inconsideration of Mr. Coney for this act.

On February 4, 2020, Council Member Brown asked Mr. Coney about a suicide the Americus Police Department had been called to work. Mr Coney asked Chief Scott for a copy of the press release. Chief Scott relayed the department does not complete press releases on suicides out of sensitivity as well as not wanting any “copy cat” incidents. Being there was no press release, Chief Scott sent Coney a 4 paged copy of the incident report. Upon receiving the incident report, Coney asked for a summary which Chief Scott provided.  Mr Coney removed portions of the summary and sent out the amended version to department heads and Ms. Johnson. Some of the department heads as well as Ms. Johnson complained to the HR director they found some of the information upsetting. All of the department heads, with the exception of Chief Scott, reported they did not need such private and personal information in order to do their jobs and they were concerned it might get out to the family. Woodward states, “this again seems to be an example of insensitivity and perhaps lack of judgment. However, I did not find any evidence it was done with intent to harass or intentionally upset staff. Rather, Mr. Coney explained that council has urged him frequently to make sure he keep them apprised of any incidents in the city so he was eager to do that.” Mr. Coney reports he treated the summary as he would a press release, thus sending it to department heads.

Lastly on  February 4, 2020, Mr. Coney and Ms. Johnson had a conversation regarding zipper repair. “Who does your City Manager see around here to fix a zipper on his pants?” asked Mr Coney of  Ms. Johnson.  Ms. Johnson turned away embarrassed to Google someone who did alterations. She provided him with the information she found. Again, the incident is not in dispute, however Coney reports that as an African American, Ms. Johnson could provide him a reference on a African American owned business. Woodward reiterated, “once again however,  it’s an example of insensitivity and poor judgment in terms of speaking about his pants’ zippers with an employee. Not a major incident and certainly doesn’t rise to any kind of employment law violation. What’s more concerning about it, in connection with the video incident that also occurred, it could be the beginnings of some kind of pattern, but I’m saying ‘could be’ I’m not saying that is what happened here.”

After review of Ms. Woodward’s summary, Mayor Blount asked for a motion to enter into executive session, Lou Chase made the motion and Kelvin Pless provided the second. The motion passed unanimously at 6:10.  With an hour recess, the council came back into open session at 7:57 pm. Mayor Blount asked for any motions, at which time Lou Chase made the motion “that we approve the resolution that we have before us providing for the termination of Mr. Charles L. Coney as City Manager for City of Americus for good cause and other purposes.” Juanita Wilson provided the second and there was no discussion. The record reflects that Ms. Wilson, Ms. Chase, Mr. Pless and Mr. Christmas were in favor of the motion, Mr. Brown is opposed and Mr. Dowdell abstained from the vote as he had a conflict of interest prohibiting his voting. Mr. Brown commented he could not vote to terminate with cause, but would vote to terminate without cause and he stands by his vote.