Warner Robins mayoral aide has earned $40,000 during extended leave

chwright@macon.comOctober 23, 2013 

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Faye Coulter, seen here in 2009, says she was forced into retirement in March by Warner Robins Mayor Chuck Shaheen.

WOODY MARSHALL — wmarshall@macon.com

She hasn’t fielded a single phone call or written a single city notice in seven months, but an executive assistant to Warner Robins Mayor Chuck Shaheen has earned nearly $40,000 during that time.

Faye Coulter, who says she was forced into retirement in March, has remained on administrative leave while her allegations against the city are addressed. An investigation was completed in August revealing a “blowup” that preceded Coulter’s retirement, but City Council has made no decisions regarding Coulter’s employment.

The Telegraph obtained a copy of the investigation, dated Aug. 25, that the city’s insurer conducted during the summer. The investigator, former GBI agent Gary Rothwell, interviewed Coulter, Shaheen, Human Resources Director Bryan Fobbus and 10 other city employees.

Coulter contended in an email to city officials and in a notice of intent to sue that Fobbus had arranged a forced retirement agreement between her and Shaheen in March, capping three years of allegations of harassment and discrimination based on her health and age.

The 35-page investigation report revealed that before the agreement, Shaheen and Coulter had an argument March 7 over an email Coulter had sent to Shaheen. In it, Coulter asked for time off to have her ears examined as a possible cause of her vertigo, as Shaheen had suggested.

“Shaheen was once a pharmacy representative that ‘everyone knows’ frequently gives out unsolicited medical advice,” the report said of Coulter’s interview.

An argument over whether Shaheen told her to try having her ears flushed -- as she recalled the advice -- or to hold her nose and blow to relieve pressure -- as he recalled it -- ensued. Fobbus took them into his office, where the conflict continued.

“He was very concerned about being perceived as offering medical advice,” the report said of Shaheen’s interview. “This concern was rooted in Shaheen’s experience as a pharmaceutical representative during which he learned that a person’s comment could become issues in a medical lawsuit.”

Eventually, Shaheen told Coulter to go home for breaking one of his five rules: He does not tolerate rudeness.

“He told her, ‘You work for me, go.’ She said, ‘No sir, I work for the city of Warner Robins,’” the report quoted Fobbus as saying.

Meanwhile, Shaheen met with Fobbus and City Attorney Jim Elliott at least once. Fobbus recalled that Shaheen asked if Coulter could be moved to another position, but Shaheen denied this.

Fobbus said the problem with a transfer was Coulter’s high salary. According to a May report, Coulter earned about $65,800.

Since Coulter had previously spoken to Shaheen and Fobbus -- according to their statements to the investigator -- about retiring, they agreed to ask her what she would want in order to do so.

“If I would have wanted to retire, I know the procedure,” Coulter wrote in a March 19 email to city officials. “There would have been tears of joy instead of tears of sorrow.”

Paid sick leave

Fobbus had approached Coulter on March 13 about the idea of retiring, since her professional relationship with Shaheen was deteriorating.

Ultimately, Shaheen agreed to Coulter’s request to go on administrative leave until April 19, her 20-year anniversary, receive pay for unused annual and sick leave, and receive a $200 cash bonus.

The payment for sick leave was not typical, however. Shaheen told the investigator he did not mind approving it, though, as long as council agreed. Council has yet to vote on the matter in open session.

“Shaheen believes sick leave is earned whether it is used or paid out, so either way the City is compensating an employee,” the report said.

Fobbus said Coulter likely requested it because she knew former Utilities Department Director Ted Hartsoe was paid his unused sick leave under former Mayor Donald Walker.

When Coulter asked Fobbus for advice, he told her he couldn’t say in his official capacity, but as a friend it was “a pot of gold,” the report said.

Also during the meeting, Fobbus and Shaheen told the investigator, Shaheen said he would only agree to the terms if Coulter agreed not to sue the city or its parties.

“Coulter didn’t say yes or no, but said, ‘Go ahead,’” the report said of Fobbus’ interview.

But Coulter sought out Macon attorney Jonathan Waters and filed a notice on April 9 of intent to sue.

Fobbus and Shaheen told the investigator that until that notice, they thought Coulter was happy with the arrangement.

“Fobbus told Shaheen he would have never had the retirement conversation with Coulter if he did not think she had wanted to retire in the first place,” the report said.

Waters could not be reached for comment, and Elliott said the city had no comment.

In the course of the investigation, none of the employees interviewed said they witnessed discrimination toward Coulter. Some of them admitted hearing Coulter complain that the mayor hardly spoke to her, and she often didn’t know where he was or when he would return so she could relay that information to other officials who asked.

The investigator also explored other allegations Coulter had made regarding Shaheen’s distrust of her as a former secretary to Walker, comments Shaheen made to his executive secretary regarding his skin tone, and the mayor’s delegation of tasks to his secretary and Coulter.

Most of the employees also said they thought Shaheen and Coulter had a personality conflict that snowballed into the incidents earlier this year.

The employees noted that Shaheen has sent home those “with whom he is angry,” as employee Pam Alexander put it. Fobbus and former Purchasing Agent Mark Baker have been sent home in the past.

Employee Gaye Harris “wishes the whole incident had not occurred the way that it did,” she told the investigator. “She wishes that Coulter’s retirement could have been a celebration instead.”

To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.

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