Mayor, HR director say Horton’s comments made them uncomfortable
by Robin Kemp
Forest Park Mayor Angelyne Butler has vetoed the City Council’s 3-2 vote Monday night that overturned City Manager Dr. Marc-Antoine Cooper’s decision to terminate Fire Chief Don Horton.
Horton faced sexual harassment allegations from Butler, former City Manager and current Human Resources Director Shalonda Brown, and an administrative aide, Kimone Trawick.
Prior to the meeting, the city had refused to confirm or deny widespread reports from multiple sources that Horton had been accused of sexually harassing Butler and Brown.
Councilman Dabouze Antoine, who is serving as mayor pro tempore, chaired the hearing. Councilmembers Kimberly James, Héctor Gutierrez, and Allan Mears also were present at roll call. Councilwoman Latresa Akins-Wells was not present at roll call but joined by telephone near the end of the hearing to cast a vote and speak in favor of keeping Horton.
Neither Butler nor Brown were not present in chambers during the special called meeting, which was Horton’s termination appeal. City officials–Police Chief/Public Safety Director Nathaniel Clark and City Manager Dr. Marc-Antonio Cooper–told The Clayton Crescent that they did not know where Butler and Brown were.
In her letter, Butler scolded the majority that had voted in favor of overturning Horton’s termination–Councilman Dabouze Antoine, who had chaired the hearing as mayor pro tempore; Councilman Hector Gutierrez; and Wells.
“The majority has failed the victims and the City,” Butler wrote in the veto addressed to councilmembers. “As such, I am compelled to un-recuse myself and truly protect the victims and the City.”
Butler had recused herself “so that I would not influence this process so that the truth could be discovered,” adding, “Councilwoman Wells was also asked to recuse herself. But chose to ignore legal counsel.” The mayor wrote that, “After the careful consultation of legal counsel, we [h]ired/[a]cquired an independent investigator to ensure that the fact-finding process was free and fair as possible.”
The mayor called the legal ramifications of the vote “atrocious” and the majority’s vote “discrimination at its best” that “created a different standard for department heads and leaders.”
“If this were to find its way to civil authorities, I see few avenues available to defend the actions of the majority,” adding that councilmembers who went against the advice of the city’s legal counsel “will NOT have the legal protection of the City.”
The allegations against Horton
With COVID-19 social distancing in place, the chamber was standing room only. A large contingent of top fire department officials were present in a show of support for Horton. Firefighters on the clock were told not to come to the hearing. Horton said they would have been capable of responding from chambers if necessary.
The first several minutes of audio on the hearing’s livestream were choppy and the city continues to have issues with microphones, particularly Councilwoman James’ dais microphone, as well as sporadic issues requiring an employee to bring speakers a handheld microphone in order to be heard clearly.
The allegations were recorded in a March 29 memo from Brown to Butler, Clark, and City Attorney Mike Williams, as well as in a memo detailing the investigator’s findings.
Brown had written that Horton’s repeated comments about her “looking good” at first seemed to her like “his personality” and “a joke.” Eventually, however, Brown told them, she felt she had to say something.
“Let me be clear, Chief Horton[‘s] inappropriate behavior should have been addressed earlier,” Brown wrote,”however, I have been hesitant about saying anything because this has happened to me in the past and I have had to endure threats and acquired counseling. The text on Friday was just too much and it [is] clear that his behavior had to be addressed; this behavior from him brought tears to my eyes knowing that is sexual harassment at its best. I’m reporting to both of you [Butler and Clark] that his behavior is unwelcomed and that I have been placed in an uncomfortable situation and this needs to be addressed.”
Brown added, “I am not sure has this happened to anyone else, but I feel that it is my responsibility to make it known. I know it is going to be very uncomfortable working with him after this has been addressed, however it is just as uncomfortable knowing the thoughts that might be going on in his head.”
The letter of the law
Horton denied his comments to Butler, Brown, and Trawick had been sexual and accused city officials of “lying” about the allegations, saying they were out to destroy his reputation and 40-year career in the fire service. He told councilmembers that nothing he had said rose to the level of either federal or local legal definitions of sexual harassment.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines “harassment” as “‘sexual harassment’ or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”
Horton also said that “there was no workplace environment” in which to be uncomfortable because Butler and Brown were his supervisors and that he only saw them twice a month at council meetings.
“The investigation is flawed,” Horton said. “It’s one-sided.”
Horton: “Evil collusion,” retaliation
Horton said that his words had been “reframed” out of context and, in a written rebuttal that served as his script for the hearing, said his firing “was calculated, documented and strategically planned. It is to say the least a[n] evil collusion between members of the City Team to remove me because I raised concerns about unfair hiring practices to Shalonda and question[ed] why the Mayor and Clark met with a vendor without my involvement as the person responsible for City response to COVID.”
He added, “This vendor has met with me and Clark earlier to get 200,000 [dollars] out of the City to ensure no city employee would get COVID. This was an unusual offer as it was impossible to do.”
He urged the council to look at the timeline of events and to overturn the decision to fire him, saying Cooper had violated Horton’s contract with the city. Under that contract, the city hired Horton effective June 29, 2020, during the time the city had barred the public and press from City Hall, citing COVID-19, and before the city supplied a viable livestream for the public to attend open meetings virtually.
Horton said that he had thought he was among friends who, he said, had told him about their daughters and offered to get him a Air BnB in Florida.
Councilmembers grilled Horton over whether he thought his comments had been inappropriate or unwanted.
Horton affirmed that he had made comments that he said were meant in jest or as compliments and that he said were not of a sexual nature. He argued that the comments never rose to the level of sexual harassment as defined by federal law and city code.
When Horton was placed on administrative leave, he said he had to turn in his city vehicle and the key to his office on Main Street. that he has not had access to his city e-mail, that Clark had a police officer escort him out of the building, and that the city changed the locks to the Main Street office.
City Attorney Mike Williams sat off to one side of the proceedings, speaking only to swear in a Fairburn Police Department investigator, Lt. Kayla Ghant, who Police Chief Nathaniel Clark had asked to look into the allegations. Two women who appeared to be attorneys sat on the front row taking notes during the proceedings and took part in the executive session.
Horton also accused Ghant of “lying” about the investigation and said that she was a friend of Clark’s.
Friends on the job
In an eight-page memo to Cooper and Clark on the investigation’s findings, Ghant wrote on April 1 that she had spoken with Trawick that day. Trawick had told her she’d met with Horton and Fire Captain Jon Baker about fire department job descriptions. Trawick alleged that Horton had followed her into her office, “mentioned Ms. Brown’s name, and stated she was a nice person….she informed Chief Horton she was good friends with Ms. Brown, to the point where her daughter considers Ms. Brown her Aunt.”
At some point, Ghant continued, Trawick and Horton began talking about Brown’s age “and she informed Chief Horton Ms. Brown was 47 years old” and that Horton allegedly had replied, “‘I guess I better stop looking because my cut off age is 45.’ Ms. Trawick stated that she thought the comment was weird for him to say and felt like he was just saying it to her because she is friends with Ms. Brown and wanted her to mention the conversation to Ms. Brown,” adding that Trawick “did not recall any other inappropriate comments” from Horton.
Horton’s written rebuttal was that “Kimone herself brought up Shalonda. I had no reason to bring up Shalonda or her age,” which was “not a surprise as she is Shalonda[‘s] subordinate and best friend. In addition, she is one of the two people Shalonda hired and paid salaries that were not justified due to their work experience, and one I spoke to Shalonda about that angered [her]. The other being my office [coordinator], Pat Wheeler, whom Shalonda had me meet in her office and directed me to hire without going through the normal application and interview process. Shalonda told me, she would handle all the paperwork. Careful review of Shalonda [‘s] allegations, ironically and strategically, includes both Kim and Pat.”
According to Ghant, Brown told her that “she considered Chief Horton like a ‘big brother’ and that he often called her his ‘little sister.’ She stated that initially Chief Horton would send her spiritual/inspirational text messages. But everything started to change” after Horton and Trawick’s conversation.
Not a good look?
On January 15, Brown said she was meeting with Clayton County Public Health Staff when Horton allegedly said, “‘You looking so good, you must have had a long night last night, you couldn’t have come straight from home looking like that. You looking real good.,’ Ms. Brown stated to Chief Horton ‘everyone let’s just go in the conference room’ and stated she needed to go get her mask out of her office….Upon stepping back into the conference room with all personnel, Chief Horton continued to say how good she was looking, stating ‘Wow, boss, you looking good'” in front of the CCHD staff.
“After the meeting, Ms. Brown stated she received a text message from Chief Horton, which stated ‘Sorry boss but you were looking good. Please accept my apology.’ (Screenshot of text messages attached.) Ms. Brown stated she does not like attention and is a very quiet person, so when this situation happened it made her feel extremely uncomfortable,” Ghant wrote. “Ms. Brown stated during this incident she told Chief Horton to stop several times, but Chief Horton would just apologize and keep making comments.”
The memo described three other incidents:
- a text from Horton during a Zoom conference “that stated ‘you looking good my child. Tell others how to dress. Ok now I am paying attention,'” which Brown described as “making her feel weird and uncomfortable” and that she “started feeling creepy about the work relationship.”
- before a March 18 department head meeting, Brown showed her vacation photos to Planning, Building, and Zoning Director James Shelby, after which Horton allegedly came over and said, “‘Now show me the real pictures.’ Ms. Brown’s response was ‘there are no real pictures, now go sit down.'”
- a March 26 text from Horton asking to meet with Brown and Clark. When Brown said it was her birthday and that she would be back the following Monday, Horton texted her, ‘that alone makes me feel better knowing that you enjoying life. Please enjoy your weekend. It’s really not that important. Just venting. Sweet 16 must be nice.'” Brown replied, “‘Thank you so much…I’m 48 years young lol…have a great weekend as well.’ Brown said she thought that was the end of the conversation “until Chief Horton sent her another message stating ‘That old. Girl I am going to top looking at you, I thought I was just a dirty old man looking at a college senior. Enjoy your time away.’ Ms. Brown stated as though she felt Chief Horton went too far with that response…[and] stated she told Mayor Butler about her previous instances after she witnessed an incident following Chief Horton and Mayor Butler.”
James asked Horton, “Do you feel that these four texts are inappropriate communications?”
He replied, “Well, Ms. James, if it had been, it doesn’t break any law. You’re hearing it from just one side.”
James also asked Horton whether he’d had to fire anyone for sexual harassment during his time in Forest Park. Horton said he had fired one employee.
James also said she understood that Horton had required a sexual harassment class for Forest Park firefighters. Horton said that he had wanted to bring in someone from the Georgia Municipal Association. When Brown said no, according to Horton, Clark offered to get him someone from Fairburn to do a class for free.
In his written statement, Horton said, “In fact, it was I who went to Chief Clark in January 2021 and Shalonda to have Freddie Broome from Georgia Municipal [Association] to come into and give training to [the] entire city. I emailed this request but Shalonda denied my request and informed me to wait for [the] new City Manager. Before I know it, Chief Clark days later tells me he has a friend in Fairburn Police Department who can do the training for lower cost or free. We went with Chief Clark[‘s] person but training was not well delivered or received.”
Broome is the former fire chief for the City of South Fulton. He went to work at GMA in April 2020 as the member services consultant for metro Atlanta.
In his written rebuttal to the allegations against him, which Horton provided to The Clayton Crescent, Horton said, “I may have told the Mayor she looked nice in February as I have no problem complimenting people. It was just a compliment. The comments about me kissing her butt [are] not true.”
According to Horton, he had gone to a meeting with Butler to discuss replacing the fire engine fleet and brought along Captain Keith King.
“The Mayor pulled up in her car and I opened her door out of politeness,” Horton wrote. “When we arrived inside the Mayor immediately instructed Captain King to leave without giving me an opportunity to introduce him and explain his presence. Captain King was one of the people who worked so hard to help facilitate this fleet replacement program. I brought him to the meeting to recognize him and his work.” He called Butler’s actions “dis-respectful to say the least.”
After they discussed the fire fleet, Horton wrote, “in front of Clark, Shalonda, and Darquita, the Mayor asked me what was my leadership style. I asked why and I said Mayor, I had already been through the hiring interview. She then asked me who I was loyal [to] and that she did not want me aligned with some Council members and their community events. I was shocked. I informed the Mayor, I do what I do, not because of any person but because it was the right thing [to] do. Shalonda then said, and for whatever reason ‘see I told you how he was.’ Clark, Shalonda and Mayor just stared at me.'”
In another incident, while Butler and Brown were eating lunch, Horton commented that Georgia should be called the Chicken State instead of the Peach State. He then told Butler to stand up, then reached for her hand, which she told the investigator she extended in a get-back gesture. According to the investigator’s report, Brown later indicated to Butler that Horton had stared at the mayor’s backside. Horton said the report left out the part where he joked he was looking at the mayor’s chair for all the eggs she must have laid due to eating so much chicken.
However, neither Brown nor Butler were amused.
Horton’s written statement also pointed to an audit of city departments that Mauldin and Jenkins had presented at the previous council meeting. That report surveyed city employees, who responded with “fears of retaliation, bad communication, not feeling you can be innovative, Shalonda. Mayor Butler, Chief Clark and may be even [City Attorney] Mike Williams has set out to make an example of anyone who would question them. Collective[ly] they attempt to rule by collusion. The report speaks for itself.”
During the hearing, Antoine asked whether Horton had any witnesses to speak on his behalf. Fire Captain Jon Baker stood up, praised Horton’s character, and told the council Horton had “gotten rid of the trash” that he said should the Fire Department should have gotten rid of a long time ago. Baker stated that Horton had ended a culture of retaliation, and that he had made many improvements to the department.
Weeks before the hearing, The Clayton Crescent had asked the city for evidence to support or debunk rumors about the allegations against Horton, specifically administrative leave papers or termination and/or exit interviews papers, but was told the investigation remained open. No sources and no one directly involved in the matter would go on record as to the nature of the allegations against Horton.
An April 6, 2021 letter from Cooper read in part, “This letter serves as notice to terminate your employment from the City of Forest Park as Fire Chief pursuant to Section 3.14 of the City’s Charter. This decision is the [sic] based on the results of the investigation of sexual harassment claims made against you. A copy of the investigative report will be made available to you.” The Clayton Crescent filed an open records request for Horton’s personnel file on April 12 but was told, “This is still an open investigation.” Cooper said after the hearing that the investigation was closed as of that moment.
Horton told the council the allegations had hurt him, as well as his wife, and that they had moved from Washington State and started building a house, thinking that they were among friends.
“I am not angered,” Horton said. “I’m not going to wish anything bad on these individuals.” He said he would pray for everyone present and that he hoped “God can change the evil in these people’s hearts and hope that doesn’t happen to the next person.”
“We’ll fight the good fight,” Horton said. “I’ll spend money, and the city will spend money, and I’ll spend money till the day I die to protect my good name. You don’t own me.”
Near the end of the hearing, Horton’s wife walked out. “Did she leave me?” he asked. Turning back to the council, Horton said, “She’s hurt. I’m done,” and went outside to find her.
Following an executive session, Gutierrez made a motion to overturn Cooper’s termination decision, which Antoine seconded.
The council then voted 3-2 to overturn Cooper’s decision to fire Horton. Voting in favor of overturning Horton’s firing were Antoine, Councilman Héctor Gutierrez, and Akins-Wells. Voting against were Councilwoman Kimberly James and Councilman Allan Mears.
“I want to say that this hearing was not based upon any work that Chief Horton has done within the Fire Department,” James said. “I believe wholeheartedly in what he has done in the Fire Department. I know that you all are moving forward and doing some great and I know you all have great leadership that’s in place, and I do have great respect for what you all do and for what you all have accomplished in the last seven months under Chief Horton’s direction. I just feel the way I feel about certain things that has been done, and I will stand by that and I will always stand by that, but that doesn’t mean that because I’m not in the majority, I’m not able to move forward and continue on the work that needs to continue in the city of Forest Park.”
Gutierrez said, “This is very unfortunate. I never thought I would be in a position like this where I was going to have to make such a decision. I’m a father, I’m a married man, also. I personally wouldn’t have done maybe some of those comments in the text message, but I don’t think that they were with a malicious intent or a sexual intent, I think there was a relationship involved, and–you know what I personally feel? I also feel, just having spoken with Chief Horton numerous times, of his character and the way he is, I think is out of place, the allegations. Just based off the facts, I didn’t, you know, I can’t–maybe this is my privilege as a man, and I apologize to the women because I don’t know what it’s like to be in your shoes, and maybe be harassed, and she did feel that way, my apologies to Ms. Brown and the mayor, I just didn’t feel like they were a malicious intent or a sexual intent for somebody to lose their job over. I think Chief Horton needs to reevaluate his personal friendships, but that’s a personal thing and that’s that. I just made it in my heart what the best decision was.”
Akins-Wells apologized for not having been at the meeting in person–“I’m at the emergency room as I speak”– and said she agreed with Gutierrez. “Being someone that has been sexually harassed or sexually molested, if I felt in my heart that he meant anything wrong, then I wouldn’t support. I haven’t known Chief Horton that long, but the little time I have known him, I don’t think that’s in his character. and again, I’ve seen the messages, I’ve heard his part, read the investigation, I don’t feel like it was fair from the beginning, he wasn’t given due process. So again, like Councilman Gutierrez said, I think he needs to reevaluate his friendships,” adding that he should keep doing his work at the fire department. “I apologize to those involved that feel like it was something sexual was coming out of what he was saying. I don’t agree with that and therefore that’s why I voted to overturn the city manager’s decision.”
Mears, who said he’d managed sexual harassment issues on construction sites, urged Horton to be more careful in his commentary.
“I think Mr. Horton has done a great job up to this point. But there comes a line that’s drawn sometime, and sometime, I’ve had to deal with this for a long, long time, for lots of years. And a man in his position, with his title and his integrity and his character, needs to know when to say no. He needs to know, just like all our directors need to know, when enough’s enough. I mean, you can’t be friends with an alligator, if anybody knows what that means, probably not. But people change, their moods change daily, some people are offended by certain things, some people are not. I prayed about it, I tried to do the best I could. It’s just a hard decision. Maybe there could have been another answer, I don’t know.” Mears praised the fire chief’s work and said he held no animosity towards Horton.
Horton had come back into chambers by this point. James reiterated that she was “not part of the majority vote,” but promised to continue working with him. “Your work speaks for itself and it has nothing to do with any decision that I made.”
After the vote, Horton said, “I’m still hurt. I still think it was an injustice. But it proves that if you work hard and if you stand for something, you stand firm in your belief, everything’ll work out. Still the best country in the world. Best fire department in the world.”
Moments later, Cooper and Horton met in person for the first time, shook hands, hugged, and spoke quietly.
“It’s nothing personal,” Cooper said of the vote and the hearing. “It’s the job. I made the decision and the council changed the decision, and it’s okay.”
Horton said, “I’m just ready to move forward because this is one of the best fire departments I’ve ever been associated with.”
Butler did not respond to The Clayton Crescent’s request for comment after the meeting. However, in her April 27 veto, Butler wrote, “While I have never been more disappointed in the majority, I am not shocked. Everything from the vote to the slanderous accusations occurred exactly how I know it would….When you have a majority governing on their feelings rather than facts, you have and did create a hostile work environment, instability and send two message to the employees: 1) the City will not protect victims, rather they will be re-victimized and 2) the City is discriminative in who and whom they hold accountable, in spite of their confirmed violation [of] a city policy.”
Among those in the audience during the hearing were State Rep. Kim Schofield (D-60) and former State Rep. Valencia Stovall, who left together quickly after the meeting.
In an e-mailed response, Stovall, who is a critic of the current city council, said, “I don’t think neither side was prepared to present its case for the hearing. There were too many missing pieces. I couldn’t understand why the investigator didn’t interview the Fire Chief and at the same time why he didn’t insist on the interview be conducted. Why didn’t the Police Chief testify? Also I don’t think the definition of sexual harassment was clear. Every job I have had made it plain that a part of sexual harassment is the interpretation of the victim and how he/she is made to feel, not the accuser’s interpretation. I think there were some inappropriate workplace interactions going on. Because we weren’t privy to all the evidence, I can’t say whether the Fire Chief was guilty or not. Moving forward, the city policies need to be strengthened and classes made mandatory for every employee, including the elected and appointed officials. All state elected officials are required by law to take a sexual harassment class.”
Schofield declined to comment on the hearing.