For almost two years, Barry Smith, the former director of the Community and Leisure Services Division in Columbia County, has remained completely silent about the reasons behind his abrupt resignation in July 2015.
After serving in the position for more than 12 years, Smith stunned the county when he submitted a resignation letter on July 27, 2015, that was one sentence long.
“Effective July 27, 2015, I hereby submit my resignation as Director of Community & Leisure Services with Columbia County, GA to pursue other professional opportunities,” the resignation letter to County Administrator Scott Johnson stated.
That was it.
According to Johnson, Smith returned to work after a three-day vacation and simply resigned, effective immediately.
That was the end of the story, as far as Johnson was concerned.
“Barry had not been disciplined prior to his resignation,” Johnson said in a statement provided to the Metro Spirit in 2015. “Columbia County’s practice usually does not discuss details of employee resignations. It is entirely up to the employee to disclose his or her reason for resignation.”
It took almost two years, but Smith is ready to explain what caused him to walk away from a job he loved since 2003.
“I am here to set the record straight,” Smith said after the Metro Spirit recently requested an interview with him. “I’m a very private person. I don’t like being in the news. I’ve always kept my head down and I’ve tried to do my best for the county. But it’s time the public knew the truth. And you can take this to bank. This is what happened.”
Smith said he decided to finally speak publicly about the circumstances surrounding his resignation after the Metro Spirit published portions of an exit interview written by Butch Holley, the former community events manager for Columbia County. Holley resigned from that position on March 21, 2016, after approximately eight months on the job.
According to Holley’s exit interview, he was offered his position by Smith on July 6, 2015, but a few days later he received a phone call from Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross.
“On July 20, I received a phone call from Commission Chairman Ron Cross, asking for me to meet with him to discuss the position later that day,” Holley wrote. “At our meeting, Mr. Cross told me that he was happy that I was taking the position, but that I needed to understand the situation that I was coming into.”
According to Holley, Cross told him that Smith didn’t want him in the position.
“Mr. Cross told me that he and County Administrator Scott Johnson overruled Barry and that I had the job,” Holley wrote. “They then told Barry that he wasn’t allowed to fill the open positions in the department, but that Barry had done so anyway.”
Holley wrote that Cross told him that Smith had hired three community events specialists in the department without the approval of Cross or Johnson.
“Mr. Cross and Mr. Johnson then told me that I could fire any of the employees once they came to work for me at any time without any reason at all,” Holley stated. “They also told me that they weren’t sure how long Barry would remain an employee with the county, but that they wanted to ‘groom’ me to take over his position.”
A week later, it is Holley’s first day on the job.
“Barry Smith welcomed me to the office and then resigned when he met with Scott Johnson,” Holley wrote. “Scott soon called me to his office to let me know what was going on.”
When Smith read Holley’s comments in the Metro Spirit a few weeks ago, he realized it was time to break his silence about the circumstances surrounding his resignation.
“First off, the claim that I filled those three positions without authorization is absolutely untrue,” Smith said. “They were all approved by County Administrator Scott Johnson.”
About two months prior to Holley starting as the community events manager, Smith said there were four vacancies in the community events department.
Columbia County’s longtime community events manager, Stacie Adkins, had accepted a new job as CEO of the Augusta Sports Council, Smith said.
Around the same time, the three community events specialists working under Adkins were also offered new positions outside the government.
“There was no conspiracy that I had for all these people leaving,” Smith said. “All of those jobs became open due to these great employees getting better opportunities and being offered better wages. These were talented people that I hired that did a wonderful job with events, so they were in high demand. But it was like a domino effect. All of the positions came open predominately in May and then a few in June. That was between six to eight weeks before Butch Holley came on board.”
As the division director of Community and Leisure Services, it was his responsibility to oversee the Community Events Department, Smith said.
“In order to fill a job, you have to follow a process,” Smith said. “The first process is a human resources job requisition. That is a form that I fill out, Scott Johnson approves it and he sends it to HR.”
Smith said he filled out the proper forms on all four open positions: the community events manager job, as well as the three community events specialist positions.
“In all four of those cases, Scott Johnson approved them and that triggered HR to advertise the positions,” Smith said, adding that not only did he request to advertise the positions in the local paper, but they were also advertised in the Charlotte and Atlanta newspapers. “HR cannot proceed without Scott Johnson’s authorization. In addition, there is a monthly meeting called management leadership team and HR discusses all of the county’s openings. HR also sends an email to all county employees and commissioners regarding any job openings in the county. Those openings are also posted on the county’s website. So everybody was cognizant of these jobs being open.”
In order to properly review applicants, Smith said he has always established an interview panel.
“I am very particular about who I hire,” Smith said. “I hire good people. I hire qualified people and degreed individuals with skill sets that match the job. And I always have a panel when interviewing applicants because I like to get other people’s opinions.
For example, on this panel, I had someone from HR, plus the head of recreation and one of the events specialists. So, we were interviewing people during this six- to eight-week period. We were interviewing for the manager and we were also simultaneously interviewing for the events specialists.”
Once a candidate was selected for the events specialist position, Smith said he submitted the form to human resources and they proceeded with pre-employment screening, drug tests and background checks.
“HR proceeded with pre-employment screening on all three of the events specialists,” Smith said, adding that all three applicants were given the all-clear. “Then, I sent them a formal letter offering these three people the jobs. This all happened over a six- to eight-week period and Scott Johnson knows that he authorized them.”
As for the community events manager position, Smith said the county had received applications from qualified individuals from all across the country, as far away as Hawaii.
“These were sharp individuals,” Smith said. “There were also people from Augusta who had strong corporate connections. There were young ladies and young men who had master’s degrees in public relations and a proven track record of success in corporate donations. But that process came to a screeching halt in late June.”
Out of the blue, Smith said he received an odd request from the county administrator.
“In late June, Scott Johnson called me up and said, ‘I want you to interview Butch Holley,’” Smith said. “I told Scott, ‘I recall Butch Holley’s application and looking at his resume. He had involvement with the Kroc Center, but I don’t think he has any event experience whatsoever.’”
But that didn’t seem to matter to Johnson, Smith said.
“Scott Johnson told me, ‘No. I don’t think he does either, but let’s interview him,’” Smith said. “I asked, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ And Scott said, ‘Ron Cross wants him interviewed.’”
As a result of Johnson’s call, Smith said he did exactly what his boss asked him to do.
However, Smith pointed out that there were many more qualified applicants for the job, including a community events specialist who had been employed with Columbia County for several years.
This individual had a master’s degree and had previously worked on major local events such as the Westobou Festival and Arts in the Heart for the Greater Augusta Arts Council.
“She was an excellent employee and she had decided to apply for the manager’s job,” Smith said. “I told her that I thought she should certainly apply, but I also told her there were other candidates who were very strong, too. And I said, ‘This Butch Holley has all of sudden come into the picture and I don’t know what the deal is with that.’ Because, quite frankly, his resume did not reflect a skill set match for success.”
Smith said he simply felt that Holley did not have the experience necessary to become the community events manager.
“But then I got a call from Scott and he said, ‘You know your interview panel? Just forget about that. We are not going to use that interview panel anymore,’” Smith said, referring to the interview panel he previously established that included members of human resources and the recreation department. “I asked, ‘So who’s on the new panel?’ And Scott said, ‘Commissioner Trey Allen, Chairman Ron Cross, me and you.’ So, little by little, I saw this all shaping up.”
But rather than argue with his boss, Smith said he agreed to establishing the new panel and attended the interview with Holley the following day.
“I said, ‘OK.’ because I am a team player,” Smith said. “On that particular day, there were two interviews. One with the current employee I had who was the events specialist and Butch Holley.”
The two interviews were like night and day, Smith said.
“The events specialist was so organized in that interview. She did a great job,” Smith said. “It was clear who was the best choice between the two. But once the interviews were over, they told me, ‘Barry, call Butch Holley. He has got the job.’”
Just like that, Smith’s opinion about which employee to hire in his division was overruled by Johnson and commissioners Ron Cross and Trey Allen.
“I told them, ‘Will do,’” Smith said, shaking his head. “Again, I’m a team player. I follow instructions. So, yes, I extended an offer to Butch Holley, but I was told to. The vote was 3-1 and they wanted me to hire Butch, which is fine. But I never even knew Butch. I didn’t do any background checks on him because they said, ‘Hire him.’ I didn’t do any reference checks on him because I already knew it was a done deal.”
The events specialist that Smith encouraged to apply for the manager’s position soon left the county and accepted a job in the private sector, Smith said.
Just a few days before Holley was going to begin his new job, Smith said he got a call on July 21, 2015, that Ron Cross wanted to see him in his office.
“So I went there and Ron Cross immediately asked me, ‘Did you fill all of these positions?’” Smith said.
Now, Smith was the division director over a number of departments including animal services, libraries, parks and recreation, the board of elections, community events, rental facilities and venues, the UGA Extension Services and the Columbia County Regional Visitor Center, so he was confused by the question.
“I asked Ron Cross, ‘Which jobs are you referencing?’” Smith said.
Cross said he was asking about the three community events specialist positions.
“I said, ‘Yes. I hired them.’ This has been going on for six to eight weeks,” Smith said. “If Butch had walked into the department with no employees there, that would not have been good for the county or for Butch. But Ron Cross said, ‘Well, how do you know that Butch is going to like the people you hired?’”
Smith said that question from Cross was extremely insulting.
“Ron Cross was putting Butch’s opinion on a higher pedestal than mine, a division director,” Smith said. “It was like a kick in the shins. He was questioning my knowledge of identifying qualified people versus somebody who had never even worked for Columbia County. I knew the skill sets required for those positions. And, let me assure you, the people I hired were a tremendous help to Butch.”
Since Cross seemed so concerned about Smith hiring the three events specialists, Smith specifically asked Cross if he had someone in mind for the positions.
But Cross seemed more upset by the fact that the employees were hired without any input from Holley.
“Ron Cross said, ‘Well, I told you not to hire them,’” Smith said. “And I said, ‘Chairman Cross, you have never told me not to hire those people.’”
However, Smith said Cross continued to disagree with him.
“Ron Cross said, ‘Well, this isn’t good. Scott told you not to hire them, didn’t he?’ And I said, ‘No. Scott has never, ever told me not to hire them,’” Smith said.
In fact, Smith insisted that Johnson told him after a Connect Columbia County meeting that he could go ahead and hire whichever community events specialist he wanted.
“I remember Scott was standing next to (his executive assistant) Janeabeth Wells after the Connect meeting and he said, ‘Hire who you want to. I don’t micromanage,’” Smith said.
Despite Smith’s explanation to Cross, the commission chairman was clearly annoyed that the positions had been filled.
“Ron Cross said, ‘Well, this is not going to be good,’” Smith said. “Once the meeting was over, I walked out totally confused. Somebody was clearly not communicating with somebody else.”
At the end of the day on July 21, 2105, Smith said he headed home to begin a pre-approved three-day vacation in Blowing Rock, N.C.
He planned to be out of the office the rest of the week, but that evening Smith said he received a call from Johnson.
“All he said was, ‘Be in my office first thing in the morning,’” Smith said, referring to Johnson. “He didn’t even say who he was. I told him, ‘Scott, I’m headed to the mountains. I’m on vacation Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. You approved it.”
Smith told Johnson that he wouldn’t be back at work until that Monday, July 27.
“Scott said, ‘Be in my office first thing Monday morning,’” Smith said. “I said, ‘All right. What is this concerning?’ And Scott said, ‘About you filling all of those jobs.’”
After his long weekend in the mountains, Smith said he reported to Johnson’s office for their scheduled Monday morning meeting.
“I went into Scott’s office and he said, ‘Barry, I told you not to fill those jobs,’” Smith said. “I said, ‘No. You didn’t. You told me to hire who I wanted to and that you don’t micromanage.’”
According to Smith, Johnson again insisted that he told Smith not to hire the three events specialists.
“By this time, I had a belly full of it,” Smith said. “I said, ‘Scott, I am not going to argue with you. You did not ever tell me not to fill those positions. You approved it. This has been going on for weeks and weeks and weeks. You were cognizant of it.’”
But Johnson did not stop.
“Scott said, ‘I told you not to hire those people.’ And I said, ‘Scott, I’m not going to argue with you. I quit,’” Smith said. “At that moment, I knew that I could not have an effective working relationship with Scott Johnson anymore. I couldn’t even look him in the face anymore. If you don’t tell me the truth, it’s over. I tell the truth.”
Smith said Johnson was stunned.
“But I told him, ‘I quit under these circumstances: I want seven months pay,’” Smith said.
At first, Johnson told Smith that was impossible.
“He said, ‘We can’t give you seven months pay. All of the division directors are under contract. You are quitting. We didn’t cancel your contract. You are quitting,’” Smith said. “And I said, ‘I want seven months pay. I know that you didn’t cancel my contract. I know I’m saying that I quit, but that is what I want.’”
With that, Smith said he left Johnson’s office and headed home.
About 30 minutes after their meeting, Smith said Johnson called and agreed to provide him with the seven months severance package and his remaining paid time off (PTO).
“The reason I quit was because Scott Johnson was not truthful to me. That was it,” Smith said. “I didn’t quit because Butch Holley was hired. That had nothing to do with it.
It had nothing to do with Butch. It had all to do with somebody not telling the truth, and that somebody was Scott Johnson.”
When Johnson was continuing to demand that Smith was never authorized to hire the three events specialists, Smith said he simply had enough.
“I just thought to myself, ‘This will never work ever in the future. This will be a dysfunctional relationship between me and the county administrator because he doesn’t tell the truth. The work effectiveness between me and the county administrator is gone,’” Smith said. “That is exactly what I thought to myself.”
Ever since walking out of Johnson’s office on July 27, 2015, Smith has not spoken with the media.
It wasn’t until he read about Butch Holley’s exit interview regarding the alleged private meeting that Holley had with Ron Cross on July 20, 2015, that Smith decided it was time to agree to speak with the Metro Spirit.
In that exit interview, Holley claimed that Cross told him that he could fire any of three community events specialists hired by Smith “without any reason at all.”
Holley also claimed that Cross told him that they wanted to “groom” him to take over Smith’s position as division director.
“If Butch Holley was really being hand-picked and groomed to take over my job, that was never, ever discussed with me,” Smith said. “If you want me to groom him and do a little dance around Butch, let me know that is what you want and I’ll do it. Wind me up like a little toy rabbit and I’ll do the dance because I’m a team player. But that was never talked about to me. They left me in the dark about it all.”
After more than 20 years working in city governments throughout Georgia, Smith said very little surprises him, but both the actions of Johnson and Cross caught him off guard.
“When I saw Butch’s statement about Ron Cross telling him that the county was grooming him for my job, that was all news to me,” Smith said. “Now, am I stupid? No. I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. That might have possibly been true that they were grooming Butch for my job, but they ended up firing him. And, with all due respect to Butch, the county shouldn’t yank people around like that. They shouldn’t take employees’ livelihood and their professions so lightly. So, therefore, I guess the moral of that story is they didn’t have good judgment.”
While Holley officially resigned on March 21, 2016, and was not actually fired, he acknowledged in his exit letter that Johnson requested him to resign.
Holley stated in his exit interview that he felt he had no other choice.
“Knowing the circumstances and history of the former director, I decided to tenure my resignation,” Holley stated.
Smith insisted that the county should have never put Holley in such a difficult position.
“If they had done a little more homework on the capabilities of Mr. Holley and a background check on his past employment and resume, this could have all been avoided,” Smith said. “But they didn’t use good judgment.”
The Metro Spirit reached out to both Johnson and Cross regarding Smith’s account of his resignation, but neither the county administrator or the commission chairman wanted to comment on the matter.
“Columbia County has a long standing practice of not discussing personnel matters publicly,” Cross wrote in a prepared statement, adding that he didn’t agree with the events as presented by Smith, but that he would have “no further comment at this time.”
But Smith insisted that he simply wanted to tell the truth regarding his resignation.
“I have never thrown anybody under the bus as long as I’ve been in government,” Smith said. “I take responsibility for my actions and I have a very good track record. I also take the blame for people under me. I am a leader. You can ask anybody who has ever worked for me. When they flounder, I pick them up, give them the tools to get them back on track and I’ll take the blame. I’ll do it because that’s a leader. And to be a good leader, you have to have faithful followers.”
When Johnson kept insisting that he had not authorized the hiring of the three events specialists, Smith said he had no other choice but to quit.
“Scott Johnson knew. He knew. He knew. He knew. But why he says he didn’t know, I think it has to do with Ron Cross,” Smith said. “But, at that point, I could not be a follower of Scott Johnson anymore. Therefore, I didn’t need to work there.”
It has been more than 20 months since Smith walked away from his position in Columbia County and he says he doesn’t regret it for a minute.
He is currently enjoying retirement with his wife, Smith said.
“There is life beyond Columbia County,” Smith said laughing. “But I believe my record speaks for itself. I was a loyal and very faithful employee. I have been that way with everybody I’ve ever worked for. Over the years, I’ve worked for the City of Augusta, I was a director for Augusta-Richmond County, a director in Savannah’s government and a director in Columbia County. Have I ever seen a government run quite like Columbia County? No. Absolutely not.”
Clearly, Columbia County has a very “hands-on” commission chair, Smith said.
“I have never seen this much involvement by a leader before. Is that good or bad? You have to weigh it all out,” Smith said. “But I don’t regret at all working for Columbia County. It was a great experience for me. But I’m very happy to be away from Columbia County because it is not an open book.”
Throughout his career, Smith said he could always handle demanding bosses and even stressful situations, but he simply couldn’t stomach someone lying to his face.
“I don’t like people who don’t tell the truth. It goes against everything inside of me,” Smith said. “All jobs have uncomfortable times. But this was so uncomfortable that I knew it couldn’t go on. It was over.”