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Editorial: Avondale residents have questions that deserve answers

Avondale Estates D'ish Decatur slideshow

Editorial: Avondale residents have questions that deserve answers

City Manager Clai Brown during an Avondale Estates City Commission meeting. File photo by Anne Clarke
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City Manager Clai Brown during the Jan. 23 City Commission meeting. Photo by Anne Clarke

If you’re wondering what the heck is going on in Avondale Estates these days, you aren’t the only one.

In December, City Manager Clai Brown – who has held the job since 2008 – announced his intention to resign his job effective Feb. 16. The reasons for this announcement were never fully explained, though reporting by the Atlanta Journal Constitution suggests a disagreement about the city’s budget may have played a role.

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It was a surprising announcement for several reasons. Brown has deep ties to Avondale. He is the son of Dewey Brown, who was the city manager and police chief of Avondale Estates for 46 years. Why would Brown leave a job in a city he loves that pays $180,000 a year for managing a city of roughly 3,000 people? For context, that’s about as much as Decatur City Manager Peggy Merriss makes for managing a city of about 23,000 people. By all appearances, the city’s residents have been fond of him until this point. To say Brown has a sweet gig is an understatement. It’s remarkable that he’d just walk away from it without a very good reason.

More perplexing than Brown’s decision to leave were the reasons behind his decision to stay. It turns out that a severance clause was added to his contract in 2015, something that came as a surprise to the current members of the City Commission. The severance clause would’ve paid Brown a full year’s salary if he resigned. That’s unheard of in the public sector. At a City Commission meeting on Monday, Brown acknowledged this. If the City Commission chose to honor this severance agreement, it would have to pay Brown his salary plus his unused vacation and sick leave. That would blow a more than $300,000 hole in the city’s budget. The City Commission declined to pay him, saying that the contract amendment wasn’t properly approved and conflicted with state law because of the financial burden it placed on the city. At this time, the City Commission hasn’t formally removed this amendment from his contract. A resolution to do so was considered at Monday’s meeting, but it was tabled before commissioners retreated into closed-door executive session without answering questions.

But how did that severance get added to his contract in the first place? We don’t know. All we have learned is that Brown’s personal attorney, who he would not identify, wrote it and it was apparently signed by Terry Giager, who was acting as interim mayor at the time.

The severance was put into the contract during a tumultuous time for the city. Former mayor Ed Rieker had resigned in 2014 following a controversy over the city’s annexation plans. The current mayor, Jonathan Elmore, hadn’t been elected yet. Giager and his fellow commissioners are no longer on the board, and the current commissioners didn’t know anything about the revision to his contract.

Attempts to reach Giager and other commissioners serving on the board at the time have been unsuccessful. Ditto for the current commission, which has demurred when pressed for more specifics about what has occurred and why.

We can all certainly appreciate the awkward position the current City Commission finds itself in. The contract dispute could lead to costly and embarrassing litigation for Avondale. The City Commission is wise to dot its i’s and cross its t’s before doing something that compromises the city’s position in the event of a lawsuit.

But the public should not have to wait for a lawsuit to get some basic answers to their questions.

Why was this provision added to the city manager’s contract? Who knew about it? Why did the city attorney sign it? During Monday’s meeting, city commissioners revealed that they couldn’t find any evidence of the severance in the city’s financial records. Why was this $300,000 liability not reflected in the city’s financial reports?

The city’s residents deserve answers to these questions.

Brown, by his own admission, understood he was getting what amounted to a bonus for resigning his position with the city. He manages the city’s money and the city’s financial records don’t reflect the changes to his contract. That’s a problem. While there’s no evidence of any wrongdoing, it’s fair to ask whether the current city leadership can trust his ability to manage the city’s finances at this time. Suspending Brown with pay would be appropriate while the city tries to get to the bottom of what has occurred.

It’s time for some of this secrecy to end. A lack of transparency is what got Avondale into this bind. City leaders need to be more transparent about what is happening, or as forthcoming as they can be without putting the city in a legal jeopardy. The city’s capable attorney, Bob Wilson, surely knows where the line is and can help the city navigate its way through a candid Q&A about the situation.

But there’s one big question only Brown can answer:

Why would someone who obviously loves the city so much do something reckless that would hobble the city’s finances?

The residents of Avondale deserve an answer to that question, too.

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