City officials point fingers as controversy spreads

12:42 p.m.: ADDS audio interview of picketers, Willis photo

12:49 p.m.: ADDS statement from Mayor Angelyne Butler

12:59 p.m.: ADDS Horton contract details

3:28 p.m.: ADDS full text of letters pending verification of claims needing fact-checking

by Robin Kemp

In front of City Hall Friday morning, Forest Park firefighters protested Mayor Angelyne Butler’s April 27 veto of a decision to reinstate Fire Chief Don Horton.

In an e-mailed statement Friday afternoon, Butler said, “It is unfortunate that the events related to a personnel matter involving members of the City have now become a public issue. Due to the sensitivity of the issues, which involve allegations of sexual harassment, I will refrain from commenting on the details of this matter. My position and actions on this matter are based upon recommendations of the independent investigation. As Mayor of the City of Forest Park, Georgia, I will not allow those who are focused on destructive behavior to distract me from the job that I was elected to do on behalf of the people of Forest Park. I stand firm on my decision and I will remain focused on working to maintain the stability and integrity of our City. Our Administration is making progress and, in the days ahead, I look forward to sharing more on how we are uplifting our City and the people we serve.”

The picketers said they oppose Mayor Angelyne Butler’s veto of the 3-2 City Council decision to overturn Fire Chief Don Horton’s firing. City Manager Dr. Marc-Antoine Cooper terminated Horton after a Fairburn police officer conducted an investigation into allegations by Butler and Human Resources Director Shalonda Brown that Horton had sexually harassed them. Public Safety Director and Police Chief Nathaniel Clark had asked the officer to do the investigation. Horton said he was joking and that nothing he said or texted rose to the level of sexual harassment, and that both women had had the power to terminate him. Brown was Interim City Manager at the time.

The Clayton Crescent requested Horton’s personnel file. It did not contain the investigative report or any related interviews to substantiate the allegations. (The city redacted Horton’s home address, Social Security number, and phone number, as well as his wife’s and daughter’s names, which is mandatory under the Georgia Open Records Act for public employees’ records.) It did contain hiring paperwork, including his annual contract with the city and his résumé; four payroll change requests; his suspension and termination letters; and Forest Park Police e-mails about attempts to deliver the termination letter.

On July 29, 2020, then-City Manager Albert Barker, Jr. extended a conditional offer of employment to Horton as “sole finalist,” pending confirmation by the City Council on August 3, 2020. Butler signed a contract with Horton dated August 6, 2020, while Horton faxed his signature on the contract from Redmond, WA’s Fire Station 11 on July 30, 2020. His base salary was $107,000 (Grade 122) and he was offered $7,500 in relocation expenses; a city vehicle; health, hospitalization, surgical, medical, dental, vision, and comprehensive health insurance for him and his family; a city phone and laptop or tablet; retirement match up to 5%; sick leave; ten vacation days per year; professional conferences and publications; and pay increases for further education. He also was offered six months’ severance pay unless he was fired for cause.

From September 2020 through March 2021, Clark, Brown, Cooper, and other city employees submitted four payroll change notices because Horton was not getting a full 10% of compensation to which he had been entitled. His pay rate of $54.02 per hour was supposed to be $56.58, according to the payroll change forms. Clark had approved the payroll change.

On March 26, 2021, Clark sent Horton a letter, hand-delivered by Lt. Charles Yermack on April 12 after an unsuccessful attempt on April 8, placing Horton on administrative leave with pay, effective immediately, “pending a further fact-finding investigation” into allegations “that certain employees have alleged sexual harassment against you.”

Fairburn Police Lt. Kayla Ghant

The investigation, which was done by Lt. Kayla Ghant of the Fairburn Police Department at Clark’s request: “Director Clark advised me that he was designating me to conduct this workplace investigation into potential sexual harassment by Mr. Horton. Director Clark informed me the city wanted to use an independent outside source to complete the investigation and gather all the facts and circumstances.” Ghant concluded that the allegations were “sustained based on the City of Forest Park’s Anti-Harassment Policy” and that, “(b)ased on the interviews conducted, it is evident that the behavior and statements made were clearly sexual harassment, especially coming from an individual in a position of authority, a department head, and representative for the City of Forest Park.”

A Forest Park firefighter and a firefighter’s wife explain why they picketed City Hall on April 30, 2021

The Clayton Crescent called Horton for comment. He said he had not known about the demonstration and that he had never experienced anything like that in his 40 years as a firefighter.

“We’re family,” he said.

Asked whether he was aware of the claim in an anonymous letter purportedly from members of FPFD, which said the city charter made no provision for vetoing a personnel appeal decision by the City Council, Horton said he had not seen the letter and knew nothing about it.

Two anonymous letters were delivered to The Clayton Crescent Thursday evening, as well as to other news outlets in metro Atlanta. One was addressed to Butler; the other to Butler, Antoine-Cooper, and the City Council. The Clayton Crescent is publishing substantive excerpts from both letters, as well as from one signed by Brown, pending fact-checking of additional claims the letters make.

The letter to the mayor read in part, “First of all, according to the City’s Charter, which was brought up multiple times Monday night, you do not have the authority to veto this decision. You are correct in saying that your veto power in Sec. 2.32 of the Code states ‘the mayor may veto any resolution or ordinance of the council,’ however you failed to mention that that is in reference to policies, codes, and ordinances, not personnel matters.'”

The city code’s section on suspending directors reads:

If the city manager decides that suspension of a director is warranted, written notification shall be sent by certified mail, return receipt requested or hand-delivered to the director and sent by regular U.S. mail or hand-delivered to the mayor and city council. The suspension shall become effective on the first business day following the Appeal Period unless the director appeals the city manager’s decision. If the director appeals the city manager’s decision, there shall be no suspension unless and until the city manager’s decision is upheld by the mayor and city council. In the event the suspension of the director is upheld by the mayor and city council, the suspension shall become effective on the first business day following the date of the decision of the mayor and city council.

Here is what the city code says about a director’s termination appeal:

The director may appeal the decision of the city manager to the mayor and city council by written notification to the clerk of the city council. Written notification must be filed with the city clerk within ten (10) days of the date of the notice of suspension or termination (referred to herein as the “Appeal Period”). The mayor and city council, after a hearing, may override the city manager’s action by three (3) affirmative votes.

The letter accused Butler and Brown of “slandering a man’s name and character You have twisted his words, taken things out of context, and made assumptions about the comments he made, using those assumptions and your interpretation of those comments as facts in your actual report.”

It also criticized Butler, who had recused herself from the hearing, for “un-recusing” herself to exercise her veto.

“How can you ask Councilwoman [Latresa Akins-] Wells to recuse herself, when she was not even involved in the accusations?” the letter read. “Not only that, how can you recuse yourself from a situation and then when you do not like the outcome, un-recuse yourself, when YOU are directly involved in the firs place? How is THAT not an abuse of power?”

It also accused Butler and Brown of conflicts of interest in hiring “friends ‘who are like family’ and paying them 1) more than the position initially received and 2) more than the individual is qualified for.”

The second letter, addressed to Butler, Cooper, and councilmembers, told of years of poor conditions in the city’s firehouses, as well as “toxic leadership in the highest positions” and fear of retaliation should they speak out:

“For years, you have allowed administration and directors to remain in their positions DESPITE them being sexist, unethical, and creators of a hostile work environment,” the letter alleged. “Our stations are in ruin; they are filled with mold, infested with pests, and falling apart at the seams. Our trucks are 20+ years old and are barely able to make it on a day-to-day basis. We have had toxic leadership in the highest positions but were never able to speak up. Our leadership did not take care of us because they never cared about us in the first place. Despite all this, we continue to serve the citizens, YOUR citizens who have elected YOU as their voice.”

Former Henry County Fire Chief Brenda Nishiyama “Nish” Willis

The letter alleges that Horton at first had turned down the city’s offer as fire chief, then tapped former Henry County Fire Chief Brenda Nishiyama “Nish” Willis. The city did not make public its top three finalists for the fire chief’s job, nor has it done so for any other department head or city manager search under the Butler administration. (Willis also was unceremoniously terminated by Henry County in 2018.)

“You did your hiring process and found your top candidates,” the letter continues. “You asked Chief Horton to take the position and he said no. You then asked Chief Nish and she accepted. As a department, we were thrilled! Not because of anything against Chief Horton, we didn’t even know him yet, but because we did know about Chief Nish and how great she is. You gave her a start date, a day to be swornin, and what happened? Tell your citizens, tell the media what you did and more importantly HOW you did it. You announced Chief Horton as the new Fire Chief and did not even have the decency to tell Chief Nish over the phone, much less in person, about your decision. She had to find out through a friend!”

The letter praised Horton for having “shown more concern, empathy, and compassion than we have ever seen,” characterizing the situation he found as, “for lack of a better word, a shitshow, and [he] was tasked with making it great. And he is making it great, with each step. You all know he is and you’ve even attested to it!”

The letter continued, “This man knows more about discrimination and harassment than some of you ever will. When he started his career serving others, he could not even eat or sleep next to the men he worked with because of the color of his skin….We know what it is to be harassed, to be bullied, to have worked in a hostile work environment. We had to endure it for years. And now, you are creating that hostile work environment all over again with this ordeal.”

The letter closed with scorching criticism of Butler and Clark.

“We protect the City and its citizens from all kinds of hazards. It’s time to protect us from this Mayor’s actions. Give us back our Chief, and then seriously reconsider the positions and power you have given others (i.e., an HR director who can no longer be unbiased to your Fire Department after this and is clearly incompetent in handling HR matters in the first place, your assistant city manager/public safety director (which we do not need with how our government works)/police chief. How is it that you can hold 3 titles without it being a conflict of interest is beyond any of us.) Stop the railroading. Stop the corruption. Enough is enough.”

Critics of Clark in both the the police and fire departments have complained about his role in the newly-created Director of Public Safety position, which was created for Clark and places him over both the police and fire departments and which they say unnecessarily duplicates administrative functions of the city manager position.

The Clayton Crescent made several attempts to reach both Butler and Clark by phone, by e-mail, and in person about the picketing. Butler emailed a response Friday afternoon; Clark did not. City Attorney Mike Williams, who was copied on the e-mail to Butler, did not respond.

The mayor and council are attending a budget planning retreat today and Saturday.

A staffer at Clark’s office said he was headed to a graduation. Some minutes later, Clark drove past The Clayton Crescent’s reporter waiting in the parking lot and waved but did not stop.

Asked whether he planned any legal action, Horton said he would do everything in his power “to protect my good name.” The Clayton Crescent left a voice mail message with his attorney seeking comment.

When asked to comment on the allegations against Horton, Brown referred The Clayton Crescent to a letter she had asked Cooper to distribute to councilmembers before the Monday hearing. The letter which was addressed to Cooper and copied to Williams, apparently had not been distributed as she had requested.

Forest Park Human Resources Director Shalonda Brown was Acting City Manager when she says Fire Chief Don Horton sent her unwanted text messages about her looks.

“In the email it stated if I wanted to send something prior to the hearing to do so,” Brown wrote. “Well, I would like this distributed to all members of the governing body. I truly hope this appeals hearing is handled in a professional manner and only the facts relevant to this case is discussed.”

Brown said she “has been a great employee for 3 years, always going above and beyond for everyone that I have encountered. Now for everything that I have worked so hard for to now be questioned and to be ostracized because I took a stand for my rights. Upon taking the job as HR Director, I took this position because I have a passion for people and from experiences, I’ve had in the past with HR I wanted to make a difference. The City has expectations of me and hold me accountable to ensure that the employees rights are not violated, and they are protected. I hold that near and dear to my heart. However, as an employee myself I feel that I have been let down severely when it comes to anyone protecting me and my rights.”

She said she had “sat back and watched governing body members embrace the Fire Chief but have yet to contact me to see how I am doing or how this has affected me, yet they can say ‘we were friends’….Instead, a smear campaign has been initiated to defame my character, work ethics and name. To even question my performance or say I’m sharing information about employees when some of the governing body has interfered with issues that should have been confidential, yet they were involved. Don’t hold me accountable when clearly you are not following the rules and regulations established. I have sacrificed so much to ensure this city and the employees were taken care of and this is an absolute insult to me as an employee. This type of behavior to say the least is truly deemed as unethical.”

Brown continued, “They have allowed this man to say things about me and no one has ever come to my defense. That is very disheartening to me on so many levels. What they fail to realize is that every decision that I made, I conferred with the City Attorney Mike Williams to ensure I was sending out content that was lawful. Not one time has Mr. Williams stood up to defend me and provide an explanation that what he said is not true. When the Mayor and I initially brought this to Mike’s attention he told me that as the Interim City Manager I could fire him on the spot. The treatment I’m getting now can you imagine how I would have been treated if that would have happened?

“To say that I have illegal hiring practices is truly a joke and to see certain governing body members feeding into this madness is ridiculous. No one will attest that I was forced to hire family members, pay salaries outside of the norm when it comes to what they wanted or their spouse not being hired, but will entertain lies without fact checking. They didn’t care if the person was qualified or not all they wanted was for it to be done by any means. But in email can allude to the fact that I have illegal hiring practices based on the statement of someone that is not credible and merely retaliating because they have been exposed. It just shows the character of the ones willing to believe a lie based on their personal feelings.”

More to come.

Follow The Clayton Crescent for updates as they become available.