Avondale City Manager faces uncertain future with the cityCity Manager Clai Brown during an Avondale Estates City Commission meeting. File photo by Anne Clarke
This story has been updated.
It has been a rocky couple of months for Avondale Estates City Manager Clai Brown and the City Commission.
In December, Brown announced his intention to resign effective Feb. 16 of this year, only to rescind that resignation a month later after the city commission refused to pay him a severance that amounted to more than $300,000 (it was exactly $317,408.17, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution). The severance would’ve been a year’s salary – Brown makes about $180,000 per year – plus accrued vacation and sick leave.
A severance for resigning is unheard of in the public sector. How Brown got that added to his contract in 2015 is one of several issues facing city commissioners as they consider whether to renew his contract this month. None of the current city commissioners were serving on the board when Brown was hired in 2008. They also weren’t present when the contract was amended to include the severance.
Mayor Jonathan Elmore said he doesn’t know why the severance was added to his contract and hasn’t asked Brown.
When asked why he didn’t question Brown about the severance, Elmore said, “Things have been a little delicate lately and I just haven’t. I think eventually we all want to know the answer to that. We’re trying to work through some other stuff first.”
That other stuff includes passing a city budget. The city’s 2017 fiscal year ended on Dec. 31, and the city is a month behind schedule on adoption of the 2018 budget. It was finally approved Wednesday evening, Jan. 31. Angst over the budget may have played a role in Brown’s decision to announce his now-rescinded resignation.
As controversy has swirled around Avondale, Decaturish took a closer look at Clai Brown’s pay, his resume and his original employment contract. The investigation revealed that Brown’s salary is above and beyond what most cities of a similar size pay their managers. Brown does not appear to have a college degree in public administration or a related field, something that is rare among his peers. When Brown was hired, he received a special exemption that allowed him to run a side business while he was serving as the city manager, though the precise nature of this business is not clear.
Brown did not respond to questions for this story.
Brown started as city manager in 2008. His background was in the private sector. He worked for Home Depot from 1979 to 2002, starting as a car loader at age 15 and working his way up to District Manager. He worked as a general manager at Best Buy in 2004 and worked as VP for Systematic Sales & Service, Inc., from 2005 to 2006.
When he started out as Avondale’s city manager, his base salary was $120,000 and his contract allowed for an annual merit raise of up to 5 percent, based on performance. Elmore said Brown routinely received raises since he was hired. Records provided by the city show he got a 4 percent raise in 2015, and 5 percent raises in 2016 and 2017.
As a result, his salary grew to exceed those paid by cities of a comparable size. The Georgia Department of Community Affairs conducts a regular municipal wage and salary survey, asking for the pay range for full time employees. Avondale, which has about 3,000 residents, reported a $170,000 maximum salary for the city manager’s position in the 2017 survey. The only comparable city to Avondale with a maximum salary close to what Brown makes is the city of Oakwood, which reported a salary of $160,000.
Michele Frisby, director of public information for the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), said that a survey showed that the average salary for the manager of a Georgia city with a population between 2,500 and 5,000 people is $91,167 a year.
Frisby said Brown’s salary is “unusual in Georgia for that population range.” She noted that Brown is not an ICMA member and that all members of the organization must obey the organization’s code of ethics.
Officials with the Georgia City-County Management Association said Brown’s salary could reflect unique challenges he faces as city manager.
GCCMA Vice President Scott Johnson pointed out that he makes $50,000 less as administrator of Columbia County than another manager in south Georgia working in a city with a lower population and fewer employees.
“It depends on the jurisdiction and some of the cities have been known to pay higher salaries for their managers,” he said.
GCCMA Immediate Past President Joseph Mosley was initially shocked when informed about Brown’s salary. He said the amount of Brown’s raises since 2008 “does seem significant.”
“Sixty thousand dollars over a nine-year period? Wow. That’s a lot of moola, my friend,” Mosley said.
He said Brown’s salary would make sense if his job had an extraordinary set of circumstances.
Mayor Elmore observed that Brown manages a small staff.
“We are a small town, but we also have a small staff, so Clai does a lot,” he said.
But Elmore and Commissioner Brian Fisher told Decaturish that the commission is considering curtailing Brown’s regular salary increases. Guidelines provided by ICMA advise cities that they should be careful when giving a raise to an employee.
“When considering any salary or benefit changes, the immediate and anticipated long-term financial resources of the organization always should be taken into account,” the guidelines say.
The city’s budget is $3.7 million. If Brown received the full severance he requested, it would’ve amounted to approximately 9 percent of the city’s budget.
“We knew that we were on the high end,” Fisher said of Brown’s salary. “We couldn’t keep doing 5 percent going forward because it was going to out-price our budget.”
Elmore said the regular raises have been a point of discussion between the commission and the city manager.
“We have talked a little bit about that – not much – about maybe doing other things instead of just 5 percent raises,” Elmore said. “We haven’t reached any conclusions.”
Severance and sick leave
The most shocking part of the saga regarding Brown’s contract was the provision added in 2015 regarding his severance.
The amendment stated that, “Employee shall carry forward to subsequent years all accrued but unused paid vacation and sick leave, without limitation.”
That provision upped the cost of his potential severance for resigning.
None of the experts Decaturish spoke to had heard a severance for resigning. The clause was apparently written by Brown’s attorney, who he has declined to identify. ICMA Executive Director Marc Ott issued a blistering statement and questioned Brown’s ethics in pursuing such an arrangement. He said, “Avondale Estates City Manager Clai Brown is not a member of ICMA, the International City/County Management Association. Despite that fact, as a public servant, he should be committed to the highest standards of ethical behavior and full transparency.”
“The Compensation Guidelines for chief appointed officers developed by ICMA are driven by the ICMA Code of Ethics and are intended to maintain public trust and integrity in local government,” Ott said. “In addition to public disclosure of the manager’s agreement, a key element of the guidelines is that every manager ensure that the agreement and amendments are disclosed to relevant elected officials, and this did not appear to have taken place in Avondale Estates. The guidelines also specify that severance should be reasonable and affordable, a standard that Mr. Brown’s $317,000 severance obviously does not [meet].”
Johnson, with GCCMA said he’s heard of a severance when someone’s contract is terminated by their employer. He’s never heard of a severance for resigning.
“I’ve never seen one like that,” he said.
The City Commission on Jan. 22 considered a resolution to remove the severance from Brown’s contract because it was not approved publicly and the financial obligations it imposed on the city conflicted with state law, but commissioners ultimately tabled the idea.
Elmore said passing the resolution would’ve made ongoing discussions with the city manager more difficult.
“We’re talking, and we felt like that would get in the way, that it was not going to help any forward progress we might be able to make,” Elmore said. “We just decided let’s shelve this for now.”
City and county managers tend to be highly educated.
Frisby, with ICMA, said a 2012 survey showed 23.5 percent of city managers have a bachelor’s degree, 39 percent have a master’s degree, 20 percent have a second master’s degree, 4 percent have a law degree and 2 percent have a PHD.
According to the survey, 2.5 percent had only a high school diploma and 8.8 a percent had some college experience without obtaining a degree.
She said having a city manager without a degree is, “Not typical.”
Elmore and Fisher were not sure if Brown has a degree. His resume lists that he attended “DeKalb Community College” and management training programs at Home Depot. It does not say if he obtained a degree.
Frisby said that sometimes the education level depends on the age of the city manager, “If you’re talking about a very senior veteran manager who started way back in the day.”
“Typically, today, folks definitely have a college degree, and many have an advanced degree,” she said.
A quick search of city and county manager job postings on the ICMA website shows most cities and counties require applicants to have a college degree.
The nature of the job is not completely foreign to Brown. He is the son of Dewey Brown, who was Avondale’s city manager and police chief for Avondale Estates for 46 years.
One of the provisions in Brown’s contract allows him to run a side business called “Real Estate Mortgage Relief.”
The company first received its business license in Cherokee County, Ga. in 2002 when Brown lived in Woodstock, according to records provided by that county and filings with the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office. The stated purpose of the company was, “Buying and selling foreclosures.”
The company maintained a current registration with the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office through 2017. The company’s registration was not renewed in 2017, records show.
His original contract from 2008 says, “the city hereby consents to [Brown’s] operation of Real Estate Mortgage Relief, Inc.” if it didn’t interfere with his duties or pose a conflict of interest. The contract said Brown could not use any city resources to run the business.
Elmore said he wasn’t aware of Brown’s other business until Decaturish told him about it.
“You know more about it than I do,” Elmore said. “I don’t know anything about that at all. As far as I know, it’s fine. I know zero about that.”
Frisby said city managers having outside employment is not unheard of, “but it must be usually done in close consultation with the elected governing body and all the parameters are established during that discussion and it cannot be a conflict of interest.”
The ICMA ethics guidelines say that, “teaching, lecturing, writing, or consulting are typical activities that may not involve conflict of interest, or impair the proper discharge of … official duties.”
Frisby said teaching is the most common side job city managers would have outside of their regular employment duties.
A path forward
Elmore and Fisher both said the commission hopes to resolve its differences with Brown.
“I think we’re still working through what that looks like right now. That’s the best I can say,” Fisher said. “He rescinded his resignation and what we’ve said is we need to figure out if there’s a path forward for us to work together, because obviously there are some issues we need to resolve that we didn’t know were there prior to Dec. 6. But it wouldn’t make sense to pretend like there weren’t any issues at this point and time.”
Elmore said the prior commission’s decision to amend Brown’s contract created the current conflict.
“My personal opinion is this whole thing started three years ago when that amendment was signed,” Elmore said. “When you have a situation where you have language in a contract where a person can resign any time for any reason and get a whole lot of money, in my humble opinion that creates a dysfunctional working dynamic because there’s no recourse. … All you have to do is say, ‘I’m done. Let me cash in. Let me go.'”
Elmore said despite the recent controversy, he still trusts Brown as Avondale’s City Manager.
“The last month has been kind of difficult for all of us, but we’ve got to keep doing our job and, you know, if something’s not working, we have to figure out how to make it work and if there’s something wrong, we’ve got to fix it,” Elmore said.