Augusta Environmental Services Director Mark Johnson doesn’t appreciate having his job threatened, particularly when he believes he has done nothing wrong.
This past week, Johnson presented members of the Augusta Commission a detailed report regarding the questions surrounding the authorization of a $15,860 pay increase he received last year.
During the Augusta Commission meeting this week, it was Johnson’s turn to tell his full side of the story. And he didn’t hold back.
“This process has criminalized me publicly,” Johnson said as he stood before the entire commission on Feb. 16. “It has hurt me professionally. It has impacted my family and it is based on an investigation that was not thorough nor complete. I’ve been accused of deception, misrepresentation and, at the end of the day, you are questioning my honestly and integrity. And that is unacceptable.”
Over the past several weeks, Johnson has been heavily criticized by Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams for pay raises he and a handful of other employees in his department received.
Williams insists that Johnson circumvented the proper channels and the raises weren’t officially approved by City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson.
“He got this 15 percent raise since July of last year and we didn’t know anything about it,” Williams told the Metro Spirit this week. “My point is, he didn’t get nobody’s approval. He just sent in the paperwork. He had this whole thing orchestrated.”
However, Johnson insisted the pay increases were properly approved by the Augusta Commission in conjunction with the city’s new building demolition program.
Following his increase in pay, Johnson began earning more than $121,600 a year along with a $600 per month car allowance.
But according to his report to the commission, Jackson was fully aware of the increase.
“Janice Jackson had knowledge and a document that showed the intent of the program, including the raises,” Johnson wrote, adding the very first document provided to Jackson last March had the specific raises listed. “Janice Jackson instructed me to work with (Deputy Administrator) Ted Rhinehart on this project. Therefore, my communications on this project were directed to Ted. Ted represented the administrator’s office form that point forward.”
Over the next several months, Johnson worked with Rhinehart and the law department on the development of the program and the necessary paperwork which outlined the specific raises.
When the program’s proposal finally reached Jackson’s desk in May, Johnson said Rhinehart was the one who actually drafted the agenda item.
Johnson insists that Jackson was provided a copy of the agenda item, which included the wording, “appropriate salary adjustments for the other management staff providing oversight and leadership for this new program.”
“Ted (Rhinehart) altered the agenda item to make it sellable,” Johnson wrote in his report to commissioners. “There was still intent to give raises, by utilizing ‘administrative authority,’ for the additional duties of the program.”
Rhinehart then presented the information to the Augusta Commission’s committee on May 26 and it was approved by the full commission on June 2.
“The commission approved a new demolition program,” Johnson wrote in his report to commissioners. “To the best of my knowledge, the program did include rate of pay adjustments as reflected on the (attachments to the agenda item.) That had been the intent all along.”
In all, Jackson received at least seven copies of the program’s details and specified raises, Johnson stated.
“Every document provided by me had all of the detailed salary/raise information listed by position,” Johnson wrote in his report.
It was his understanding that Jackson was going to utilize “administrative authority” to finalize the program, Johnson said.
The paperwork was then submitted to the city’s human resources department, Johnson stated.
Both the human resources department and the finance department reviewed the paperwork regarding the compensation changes and the pay raises were implemented in July.
However, six months later, Johnson said he is shocked to hear Jackson now claiming she had no knowledge of the pay increases.
“Janice had been given an agenda item on March 20, 2015 which detailed specific raises for four specific people,” Johnson stated in his report.
She also had conversations with Rhinehart regarding the compensation in May, he stated.
But the next thing Johnson knew he was “under investigation,” according to a Jan. 29 article in The Augusta Chronicle.
“Nobody notified me, discussed or communicated that I was under investigation,” Johnson wrote. “I read it in the Chronicle like everybody else.”
That day, Johnson immediately sent a text to Rhinehart questioning the investigation.
“I see that the Chronicle is stating that Mark Johnson is under investigation,” Johnson texted to Rhinehart. “I hope that is an inaccurate statement.”
The next day, Rhinehart responded by sending the following text to Johnson, “Janice and HR have been reviewing a bunch of the salary increases that she hadn’t seen paperwork on. I don’t know details as I wasn’t in their meetings. In the meeting on Monday we’ll see what her questions are.”
As a result, Johnson met with Jackson and Rhinehart on Feb. 1 to discuss the pay raises.
Johnson is claiming that Jackson violated his due process and created a “biased investigation” by including Rhinehart in the room and conducting the interview herself.
“Ted was an active contributor during the creation of the agenda items and budget, as well as put all the items into the (agenda system), and presented the program to the commission,” Johnson wrote.
Clearly, Johnson feels he was unfairly treated during this investigation.
“My due process was violated, and the administrator presented her finding and recommendations based on a tainted, subjective investigation,” Johnson wrote to commissioners.
As he stood before the commissioners late Tuesday evening, Johnson was clearly disturbed and dismayed by the accusations against him.
∂“The fox can’t watch the hen house,” Johnson said. “The administrator shouldn’t investigate a process that she is involved in.”
Johnson said the entire investigation was “subjective,” not “objective.”
“I don’t know another director who steps up and says, ‘Let me solve a personnel action problem for the administrator. Let me bring $1.6 million to the table to solve a demolition program,’” Johnson told the commissioners. “And, at the end of the day, stands before you challenged on integrity.”
But some commissioners weren’t buying Johnson’s story.
“So the building demolition program was approved one day and the next day he went down to the human resources department and said everything was approved, including the pay increases,” Williams said. “That’s not true. He had no sign off from the administrator. It is just wrong. It is blatantly wrong.”
Williams said he was so disgusted by the entire situation that he felt that Johnson should be terminated.
“He should be fired,” Williams said. “We have terminated people for a lot less than that. We terminated Vanessa Flournoy, an attorney, for having her personal business on her computer. She didn’t do anything wrong. We fired the EEO director, Jacqueline Humphrey, for who knows why. I don’t know for what reason we fired her. And we fired our former public works director, Teresa Smith, who had been promoted and had received good reviews. But we fired her. So I’m thinking this needs to happen. Johnson needs to be fired.”
Otherwise, Williams believes other employees will try to circumvent the process and unfairly receive raises or bonuses.
“We need some checks and balances,” Williams said. “If you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar, you have to pay the price.”
In her defense, Jackson said the raises were processed without her signature.
“I had knowledge of the agenda item and certainly knew he was requesting a raise,” Jackson said of Johnson. “What I did not know was that the raise had been processed.
Augusta Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said he was completely shocked by the entire process, insisting that Johnson has been the only one who has been totally transparent in this case, and yet his head is on the chopping block.
“I am a little stunned at this point right now,” Guilfoyle told his colleagues, adding that all of the county’s department directors are closely watching the manner in which this investigation is being handled. “We have thrown Mark (Johnson) underneath the bus.”
Guilfoyle said this investigation proved there’s a problem with the process of submitting employee salary increases, not a concern about Johnson.
“If anybody takes 30 minutes out of their time and reads through this (report), you will see that Mark’s name is clear,” Guilfoyle said. “What you will also find is the fallacies within our government.”
Mayor Pro Tem Grady Smith wholeheartedly agreed with Guilfoyle.
“We are going to try to barbecue a good employee or crucify him, whatever word you want to use,” Smith said. “Like Paul Harvey used to say, ‘Now you know the rest of the story.’”
Smith was also disappointed that Rhinehart was not present at the meeting to discuss the matter.
“With something this serious, where is Mr. Rhinehart? Why isn’t he here?” Smith asked. “He is directly involved. We could hear his comments.”
After listening to his colleagues’ statements, Smith said he was truly concerned about the future of Augusta-Richmond County.
“This is Augusta, Georgia, not Salem, Georgia,” Smith said.
Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis seemed very discouraged by the entire tone of the discussion.
“This is a sad day for us in Augusta,” Davis said, shaking his head.
Augusta Commissioner Sean Frantom said he couldn’t agree more with the mayor.
“I have to say I’m so disappointed when you hear this back and forth going on. I mean, why would anyone want to work for this government when they are dealing with what they have to deal with up here?” Frantom asked. “I’m sorry you are having to go through this Mr. Johnson. It is not fair. We have got to protect our department heads. They are the life of this organization.”
Frantom said there is clearly no respect for the department heads and their employees.
“Frankly, it is disheartening,” Frantom said.
As a result, Frantom said all of the accusations against Johnson should be “thrown out,”
but that motion failed with a vote of 4-6, with commissioners Mary Davis, Frantom, Guilfoyle and Smith voting in favor of the motion.
All of a sudden the discussion began to turn racial.
Earlier in the meeting, the Augusta Commission went into an unexpected closed session to discuss a matter that was not on the agenda.
When the meeting resumed, commissioners voted 7-3 to rescind Augusta-Richmond County Fire Chief Chris James’ resignation letter after learning in the legal meeting that he had lost his recent job offer as assistant manager of York County, S.C.
As a result, the commission voted to rescind the six-months severance package and unused vacation pay that the fire chief was offered last week.
“I ain’t got no problem of going to the real issue of why we ain’t doing what we are doing,” Williams said. “So, if you all want to put it all on the table, let’s put it all on the table. The fire chief we just got to rehiring because some folks wrote letters about him that got rid of him.”
Williams accused individuals of writing negative reports about the fire chief that resulted in York County withdrawing its job offer. Williams said he was sick and tired of playing games with “old crazy folks.”
“This is 2016. Folks can see and folks can look at your vote and tell how you are thinking,” Williams said. “This is 2016. This ain’t 1816.”
In the end, the motion to terminate Johnson failed with a vote of 5-4-1 with commissioners Dennis Williams, Ben Hasan, Sammie Sias, Marion Williams and Bill Lockett voting for the motion. Commissioners Davis, Frantom, Guilfoyle and Smith voted against the motion. Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy abstained.
Immediately after the vote, Commissioner Marion Williams asked that the item be placed back on the agenda in two weeks.
At the close of the meeting, the mayor said the city government cannot continue in this negative manner because it is clearly impacting employee morale.
“There has been a lot that has gone on today,” Davis said, explaining that not only did the fire chief appear to have a “new future” in York County taken away from him, but Johnson must return to work after all these accusations have been publicly discussed. “Mr. Johnson is going to go back to work tomorrow and this will hang over his head. Chief James will go back to work tomorrow and this will hang over his head. And for us, as a governing body, to think that it’s okay is wrong.”
The Augusta Commission and local government must “do better,” Davis said.
“At the end of the day, we have to work together,” he said. “We need to find a way to repair this.”