Editorial: Clai Brown’s contract raises questions that should give Avondale voters pause
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Editor’s note: The author, Hans Utz, formerly served as the Deputy COO of the City of Atlanta. He writes about local politics and government finance. He and his family currently reside in Decatur. This editorial represents his opinion based on Decaturish.com’s reporting.
On Oct. 15, we notified Clai Brown that this editorial would be published and invited him to a sit-down interview to answer questions about his contract. As part of the invitation, we offered to upload a recording of the interview to Decaturish.com. Brown did not respond to our request. To date, Brown has not presented evidence to refute our articles about this topic.
This post has been updated.
By Hans Utz, contributor
Let me tell you how a government official would go about enriching themselves at the expense of taxpayers without the public knowing about it.
Step one: Find an existing city contract, like an employment contract.
Step two: Update and amend that contract to give yourself a large bonus for quitting your job and changing the rules so you can retire 10 years earlier than everyone else.
Step three: Keep the public in the dark about the changes by making sure the contract amendment isn’t in the agenda packet published online before every meeting. Make sure the meeting agenda is vague, too, burying the amendment in bland language like, “Annual Evaluation of City Manager Employment Agreement.”
Step four: Make sure you don’t publicize the changes after they’re approved.
Pro tip: It helps to keep quiet about the changes when new people are voted into office.
This is an almost perfect description of the actions taken by Clai Brown when he served as the Avondale Estates city manager between 2015 and 2018. Brown sought and received a remarkable set of benefits, including a large bonus paid if he quit and a full retirement 10 years before any other employee.
Let’s dwell on those changes for a minute. No one in the public sector gets a $300,000 bonus if they quit. Think about the incentive that sets up: I can stay in the job, or I can quit and get paid several years of salary.
That is just an insane award that no fiscally responsible city manager would ever allow. Despite claims that these perks were awarded to retain Mr. Brown, their effect was to incentivize him to quit and collect his taxpayer-funded windfall. No professionally managed city would have allowed that circumstance to come to pass. In the end, Brown didn’t get his full severance, opting to settle the dispute with his employer for around $135,000
As insane as the bonus sounds, the early retirement is just as bad. The pension payment is a direct cost borne by the municipality. In Brown’s case, that is a monthly payment of $2,273.80 every month for the rest of his life. It comes to $272,856 he will be paid over the 10 years he gets to collect it before anyone else.
The changes to Brown’s contract are worth just shy of $600,000 dollars, including the early retirement benefit. That is equal to approximately 15 percent of the city’s annual operating budget.
Maybe I’m being a stickler, but it seems to me that unheard-of benefits awarded to a single individual that are worth one-sixth of the city’s operating budget should be thoroughly discussed in public so the voters know what is happening to their tax dollars.
This is not what happened.
Decaturish looked into the changes to uncover what happened, and to try to find a justification for an award that vastly outstripped any comparable award offered to other city managers.
The closest thing to a reason that I have seen is that Brown was afraid of being fired by a new commission and so Brown and the former City Commission designed the contract to prevent political retribution.
That doesn’t hold the slightest bit of water. There are many ways to structure a contract to prevent this. You could link the bonus to an unjustified firing. Three hundred thousand dollars is still a lot of money, but had it been paid if Mr. Brown was unjustly fired, I would not have been as troubled by it.
But that is not how it was done. He could quit at any time and claim the money. In fact, according to the terms, the only way he could claim both the bonus and the early retirement was to quit prior to turning 55.
I’m sure you will be shocked to discover that is exactly what he did. He alerted city commissioners in December 2017 that he was leaving the city in February 2018 and that he was owed lots of money.
This surprised the new mayor and the new commissioners not involved with the changes, and they decided to investigate what happened.
There was a conspicuous lack of public information about this contract amendment prior to Brown’s resignation.
No details were in the commission minutes from 2015. The contract details were not in the personnel department in Mr. Brown’s personnel folder, not with the auditor (despite the liability to the city), and certainly not online.
Usually when a change is made that costs 15 percent of the operating budget, there will be ordinances read, public discussion with public comment, and a public vote.
Furthermore, the early retirement obligated the city to pay a retirement benefit to Mr. Brown that the city’s own retirement plan did not allow. This meant the city needed to change its plan to meet to its obligations to Mr. Brown.
The city did this without ever publicly discussing the details. There was an ordinance read three times to change the retirement plan. The changes were briefly discussed during a May 2015 work session. Terry Giager, who was mayor pro tem at that time and knew about the contract amendment, told his fellow commissioners, “We do have — as part of a personnel contract — have a change in there to make that agree and so that everything would be adequate and legal. Pretty much normal stuff.” (Editor’s note: Giager’s comments about the changes to the city’s retirement plan are about 1 hour and 26 minutes into the meeting. To hear the audio from that meeting, click here.) In fairness, the details of the changes to the retirement plan were included in the agenda packet, which you can read by clicking here.
But there was no public discussion what the changes were, which contract was behind the requirement, and no discussion on the impact of the changes to the city. All of this should have happened.
Mr. Brown’s lawyer has sent a threatening letter demanding that the current Mayor “publicly correct [his] inaccurate statements” – statements that have been factually supported by an investigation by the city’s attorney.
A letter signed by former City Commissioners who approved Brown’s contract was mailed to Avondale residents. The letter included a false but easily fact-checked claim that Mr. Brown didn’t use the city-provided health insurance. (He did.)
Even more clumsily, the letter was written by Lindsay Forlines, a former Commissioner who “want[ed] to provide some institutional memory on this process and how this severance package came to be”…but who herself was notably absent from the session where the contract was supposedly approved.
This is embarrassing, bush-league incompetence. Why make this kind of claim about something so easily fact-checked as health insurance, especially when it is irrelevant to your point?
How are we to trust any of what the Brown camp says on this topic when they make a claim that is so easily disproved? It boggles the mind.
I have found this article difficult to write. I have no personal animus toward Mr. Brown, and I believe the residents who vouch for his long service to the city. Having served a municipality myself, I know how difficult and thankless the job can be.
I would rather honor Mr. Brown for his service than take him to task. But no prior service, no matter how exemplary, warrants a free pass over the type of actions that have led to this editorial.
I have yet to see a reasonable explanation for why Mr. Brown was given a bonus that set up the incentive to quit, or why he deserved early retirement when no one else at the city did.
The public record was muddled so that no one would realize Mr. Brown had been given a huge benefit. Brown’s contract amendment was clearly not in Avondale’s best interests.
Mr. Brown is now running for Mayor of Avondale Estates. I am not a resident, and the mayor of Avondale has little impact on my day to day life. But I am an advocate for good governance, and this much is clear from the record:
Mr. Brown has avoided a public discussion about his unwarranted and absurdly generous benefits despite the burden they put upon the taxpayers.
Either Mr. Brown and his allies on the previous City Commission accidentally granted him a huge unwarranted award on the backs of innocent taxpayers in a manner that was entirely opaque, or they did it on purpose.
The process to have done this correctly is a simple one that municipalities follow routinely with no issue. If the previous commission did it by accident, screwing up the process to this level requires almost an artistic flair for incompetence.
And if they meant to do it this way, that raises a whole different set of troubling and problematic questions.
I’m curious which explanation they prefer. Either should be viewed as disqualifying for someone running to be Avondale’s next mayor
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