Politics & Government

Warner Robins faces lawsuit from former Public Works Director Joe Musselwhite

Joe Musselwhite
Joe Musselwhite

A former Warner Robins public works director is suing the city for what he says were slanderous and defamatory statements made about him in a public meeting earlier this year.

Joe Musselwhite, the city's public works director from 1994 until 2013, filed the suit Thursday following a demand letter sent to the city in July in which Musselwhite sought $100,000 in damages.

The allegations stem from a June 1 council meeting at which local resident Louise McBride read aloud an anonymous letter that "alleged that racism was rampant in the city's public works department under the previous public works director's tenure," according to the lawsuit.

Mayor Randy Toms and City Council members Tim Thomas and Carolyn Robbins are specifically named in the suit, accused of making "reckless and malicious" statements. Thomas also is being sued personally.

Attempts to reach Toms and McBride on Tuesday afternoon were unsuccessful. Robbins, Thomas and Musselwhite declined comment.

The city, McBride, as well as Councilmen Chuck Shaheen, Keith Lauritsen, Clifford Holmes and Mike Davis also are listed as defendants in the suit.

City Attorney Jim Elliott said the city responded with a refusal to the demand letter sent by Musselwhite's attorney in July.

"This was the obvious next step for them," Elliott said Tuesday evening. "We've forwarded (the lawsuit) to our insurer ... (which will) provide defense for the city and all the city officials named."

The lawsuit alleges that the dissemination of the anonymous letter as well as the reading by McBride were planned and orchestrated by Thomas, who was elected to office in 2013.

The suit says Musselwhite hired Thomas' brother, Bobby Thomas, and then demoted him in 2011. Musselwhite alleges Thomas orchestrated the reading of the letter in apparent retaliation for the demotion of his brother, according to the suit.

The suit claims that during the June 1 meeting, Thomas said he had investigated the alleged racism in the department and "it was confirmed ... there is no rumor to this ... this happened a year and a half ago, it is not false," according to the lawsuit.

The suit contends Robbins said, "I'm assuming that it did happen, because Mr. Thomas said it did."

As for Toms, the lawsuit alleges he said, "This is not going on now, anonymous can come talk to me."

The suit claims a proper investigation was not conducted into the allegations and that elected officials should have "at the very least, refrained from public comments about any alleged racism," according to the lawsuit.

The City Council typically discusses personnel issues in a closed-door session to protect the privacy, rights and reputations of its employees, the suit said, and Musselwhite should have been afforded the same right.

Stan Martin, Musselwhite's attorney, said Musselwhite is seeking justice for himself.

"To me, the city really needs to make a retraction and say that 'Mr. Musselwhite was not a racist and he didn't run a racist department. There's no evidence of that, and we apologize for the comments that were made,'" Martin said.

"They've had an opportunity to do that (but) they haven't done it," Martin said, "so they didn't really leave us any choice except to try to clear his name."

To contact writer Laura Corley, call 744-4334 or follow her on Twitter @Lauraecor.

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