Assistant to Warner Robins mayor claims she was mistreated, threatens lawsuit

chwright@macon.comApril 12, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Claiming she was unjustly pushed out and subjected to a hostile work environment, a longtime assistant to the mayor has notified the city she plans to sue for nearly $500,000.

In a notice of intent to sue sent to the city this week, Macon attorney Jonathan Waters alleges that Mayor Chuck Shaheen verbally abused and discriminated against executive assistant Faye Coulter due to her health and age, before forcing her into a retirement agreement.

“The Mayor has subjected Ms. Coulter to demeaning comments, refusing to speak to her for periods of four weeks to two weeks at a time in a hostile attempt to subject her to psychological attack,” the notice states, “culminating in yelling at her ... calling the police on her, pilfering through her personal effects (and) forcing an unwanted retirement on her.”

In an email to The Telegraph, Shaheen said he would wait until the appropriate time in the legal process to address the allegations. The city’s insurer is handling the case.

“The letter contains many accusations and allegations from Ms. Coulter which I contend are untrue,” Shaheen stated. “And I look forward to the day when I will have the appropriate opportunity to respond to each and every one.”

Put on notice

The “ante litem” notice from Waters, dated Tuesday, was received at City Hall on Wednesday morning, according to City Attorney Jim Elliott. During a closed meeting later that day, Shaheen and council members could be heard from the hallway arguing about Coulter.

State law requires a party to notify a municipality before taking official legal action against it.

In the notice, Waters gives the city 14 days to investigate and respond. But Elliott said the city has 30 days under Georgia law.

Both the city and Coulter declined to comment on the details of the allegations based on advice from their respective attorneys. Waters also said he didn’t want to comment at this time.

The Telegraph obtained an agreement of separation terms that Shaheen and Coulter signed March 13, an email Coulter sent to officials March 19 and the ante litem notice. The city released the March 13 agreement through an open records request but did not release the email.

“Simply, the city’s position is that a complaint that initiates an investigation ... is a part of said investigation and thus exempt from release until the conclusion,” Elliott stated in an email.

Elliott stated the city is consulting with outside counsel about the proper procedure to investigate the harassment allegations. He did not say when the consulting began or when the investigation might finish.

Separating

In the March 19 email to the city attorney, human resources director, Shaheen and council members, Coulter described the events that led up to the retirement agreement she claims she was forced into.

“If I would have wanted to retire, I know the procedure,” Coulter wrote. “There would have been tears of joy instead of tears of sorrow.”

She writes that Bryan Fobbus, the human resources director, called her into his office and said Shaheen “wants to know what it will take to make you happy.”

“Bryan said, ‘Faye now is the time to name your price,’ ” Coulter wrote. “ ‘If this was offered to me, I would take it and run. He doesn’t want to work with you, and I don’t know why you would want to work for him.’ ”

With Fobbus shepherding requests between Coulter and the mayor, a decision was reached, Coulter claimed.

In the agreement, signed by Coulter and Shaheen, Coulter was placed on administrative leave with pay until April 19, the time she is eligible to retire. Coulter had a salary of $64,800 in 2011, according to a payroll study.

Based on the agreement with Shaheen, she will be paid all annual leave and $200 for her service, which she stated in her email is standard. She can apply for a part-time position with the city in the future.

Also, the agreement stated Coulter would be paid for all sick time upon retirement -- nearly 1,600 hours, according to Coulter’s email. She noted she requested it “since the mayor thinks I go to the doctor every day.”

And “don’t tell me that can’t be done because I know y’all have done that before,” Coulter wrote that she told Fobbus.

She stated Fobbus went to get council approval on the paid leave and returned too quickly to have gotten it. But Shaheen signed the agreement, and she went home.

Elliott stated in an email that the mayor and council are generally required to vote on contracts. According to minutes from public meetings in March and April, City Council had not voted on the topic.

Council members have declined to comment on Coulter’s allegations.

It’s unclear what prompted the mayor’s alleged request to ask Coulter to retire. An earlier argument is referred to in both the email and ante litem notice, however.

Coulter stated in the email that Shaheen threw her out of his office and told her never to come back. She also claimed the mayor went through her things, and she was missing an expensive pen that former Mayor Donald Walker gave her as a gift.

Coulter will have worked for the city of Warner Robins for 20 years on April 19. She was Walker’s secretary. When Shaheen took office in 2010, Coulter moved into a back office, and her title became executive assistant. Felicia Wright was moved from the front desk, was named secretary and now maintains the desk in the mayor’s office.

The two switched offices for about a month earlier this year.

In a closed session Wednesday, Shaheen and council yelled about Coulter’s departure loud enough that it could be heard from beyond the closed conference door.

“I didn’t want it to end this way,” Shaheen said.

He went on to say there are 525 employees who work for the city, and he’s being taken to task over the five he’s yelled at.

“I try to treat everyone with respect,” he said.

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