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BLACK BOX INVESTIGATIONS

Former Forsyth County manager says secrecy prevails in local government

Leaders deny charges of deliberate misdirection in conducting business

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Former Forsyth County manager says secrecy prevails in local government

FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — The man who led Forsyth County’s day-to-day operations for the past three years says elected leaders prefer operating in secret, extend their authority over individual departments and use the county attorney as a surrogate for their own policy goals.

Former County Manager Eric Johnson charges that county commissioners are intentionally cryptic in the picture they present to the public. They often give the county attorney excessive power and are unwilling to change the way they do business, he says, even when alternatives would introduce greater efficiency. 

Johnson’s revelations come just as his replacement in the post, Kevin Tanner, comes on board this month.

County commissioners voted not to renew Johnson’s contract in August.

Johnson said that, from the outset, one member on the commission led a crusade to oust him. He said the commissioner orchestrated a failed attempt to compile negative comments against him with an “amateurish” performance review that was later buried because it was generally positive.

Johnson expressed relief at being away from the job.

“It was a tough challenge to hang in there for the three years I agreed to,” Johnson said.

Laura Semanson, who served as chair of the Board of Commissioners for the final period of Johnson’s employment, dismissed the accusations.

“To me, what I’m hearing is a former, disgruntled employee that, for some reason many months down the road, does not want to let things go,” Semanson said.

Johnson argues his concerns are valid because he is a “resident and taxpayer” of Forsyth County.

eric johnson

Eric Johnson

Johnson said the five-member County Commission prefers to conduct much of its business out of the public eye.

“I think they like to do things behind closed doors, they try to be cryptic in describing some of the discussions behind closed doors,” he said. “Here, they routinely have meets of two commissioners, and one of [those] two will go have a discussion with another, and magically you have a quorum of the board having a discussion out of the public eye. Now, proving it is difficult, but it happens constantly.”

Viewing a commission meeting can give tell-tale signs, though, Johnson said. Commissioners will often talk about having discussions with several parties on an agenda item, he said.

“That suggests that they were deciding what their issues were, and I’m not saying they take votes necessarily, but they know where they are before they walk into a public forum and actually have a public discussion,” Johnson said.

Often, commissioners would go into a “true” executive session, Johnson said, a closed-door meeting which can only include commissioners, the county clerk, county attorney and county manager. However, even as the county’s chief administrator, Johnson said he was not invited to most executive sessions, and he wasn’t even privy to their subject matter.

County Attorney Ken Jarrard balked at the accusations.

“I believe Forsyth County is extremely transparent,” Jarrard said. “I reject entirely the notion that Forsyth County is not complying fully with the Open Meetings Act, both the letter and the intent.”

Semanson called Johnson’s descriptions a “complete fabrication” that could “not be farther from the truth.”

She said emails and text messages of the board are subject to the Open Records Act, and all public meetings, aside from executive sessions, are livestreamed and archived.

“I really take issue with the comment that we do any type of inappropriate business behind closed doors, because it just doesn’t happen,” Semanson said.

Residents limited in details

Though officials tout the county’s adherence to open meeting laws, residents are still mostly left in the dark when commissioners take up an issue in public. That’s because access to background information on commission agenda items — information that guides discussions and decisions made by elected leaders — is not provided with the online agenda.

All of Forsyth’s neighbors — Cherokee, Dawson, Fulton, Gwinnett and Hall counties — provide background information online for residents to review before meetings, and the packets are digitally archived. Gwinnett County has provided the service for more than 12 years.

County officials announced in 2019 they would make the move to provide the background information online, but that hasn’t happened.

Job survey obscured at meeting

Johnson said one example of the board’s enigmatic dealings was his performance review that county officials only discussed in cryptic terms during a public work session.  

During two board meetings in 2019, commissioners approved an agenda item titled, “Board authorization to implement the action discussed at the June 20, 2019 Executive Session,” without providing any details of what “the action discussed” related to.

The county did eventually clarify the agenda item, but only after it was flagged by a Herald reporter. The county introduced the item at a formal meeting later, describing it as an evaluation to “continually assess County Manager job performance.” Even then, the item was placed on the meeting’s consent agenda and passed without discussion or explanation.

The issue stayed entombed after the review was complete.

“After they did that survey, they didn’t even bother to do my annual evaluation, the [commission] chair never sent it out,” Johnson said. “They sort of covered up what they did by having [County Attorney Ken Jarrard] talk very generically about continuous improvement, but they never actually talked to me about it.”

Johnson said the survey was an attempt to assemble negative comments from county staff in a crusade led by one county commissioner.

At least one county commissioner had it out for him, Johnson said, and she apparently convinced her peers to not to renew his contract.

Johnson would not name the commissioner, only that it was a female. He said this commissioner wanted the authority to direct Johnson’s dealings, and she was manipulative in trying to orchestrate county dealings.

This commissioner looked “for any angle to blame me for anything,” Johnson said. This situation was particularly challenging, he said, because she wanted to give direction to Johnson’s staff without his knowledge.

Johnson said he found himself outnumbered when he raised the issue.

“And then magically the chair got re-elected chair, and at that point I kind of knew I wouldn’t get an extension,” he said.

He had previously suspected someone wanted him out the door when he heard rumblings of former county manager Doug Derrer might return to his former role.

“I sent a text to [Derrer], and he suggested he was interested in coming back on an interim basis,” Johnson said. “The only reason for that is someone suggested I may be gone.”

Semanson said she did “not have it out” for Johnson and tried to work with him for months to cultivate a better working relationship between him and the board.

Survey buried after positive responses

The unplanned performance review of Johnson’s performance, including a survey of 35 county employees, shows most of his coworkers viewed him in a positive light. Many used the survey to criticize county commissioners.

In the report, Johnson scored between “good” and “excellent” on 17 of 19 categories and was marked “fair” to “good” in the others, the report shows.

The survey also included an open-ended portion, and some responses back Johnson’s claim that the commissioners held Johnson in a negative light.

“I doubt this appraisal process was in the best interest of Forsyth County,” one respondent said. “The clear message is that Mr. Johnson does not have the support of one or more BOC members.”

Another respondent said they believed the board was “the most significant impedance” to Johnson’s progress. The employee also criticized commissioners for publicly admonishing staff, including the county manager, and called out the complacency of other commissioners during these on-the-record criticisms.

A particularly positive review of Johnson also called out commissioners for their public criticism. Another said commissioners’ expectations of Johnson were inconsistent, and the board needs one voice for county staff to “do a good job.”

“It is commendable that the county manager has remained with the county while dealing with some of the most difficult board members in quite some time,” one respondent said.

Johnson said there were criticisms he “took to heart” from the survey, but commissioners ignored the favorable results.

An ‘amateurish’ exercise

When commissioners arranged Johnson’s evaluation, they called on the county attorney to draw up the review. Johnson said the entire exercise was “amateurish.”

Many of those who were sent the survey did not directly report to Johnson, he said, and the results did not separate his peers from subordinates.

Johnson said a better approach would have been to ask the relatively local Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia to design professional, state-of-the-art performance reviews.

“[Jarrard is] a very good attorney, he’s very successful…but having him do an evaluation when he didn’t really know how to do one properly was just an example of [commissioners] leaning on him for anything, whether it really has anything to do with legal advice or not,” Johnson said.

It is not the only example, he indicated.

Johnson said board members often use Jarrard to place items on meeting agendas or have him present an item to commissioners that should have come from a department head. He said this is especially the case for agenda items that are “non-routine.” It also keeps residents in the dark about potential legislation or policy changes.

“Rather than discuss a new financial policy at a Finance Committee meeting and have it prepared and [its] impacts described by finance staff, a commissioner has [Jarrard] prepare a resolution, skip any financial discussion, and he presents it on behalf of a commissioner for approval by the board,” Johnson said.

In other instances, Johnson said the county attorney, not a department head, presents an ordinance update. He charged that such presentations should be given by those in charge of overseeing the changes, not the county attorney.

Commissioners also have Jarrard place other items on the agenda for them, sometimes right before a meeting, without anyone else seeing it, Johnson said.

“It’s not anything that’s terribly nefarious, it’s simply this mindset that they have that the attorney controls much of what goes on, and they rely heavily on him to make sure they are doing things right,” Johnson said. “And to some extent, that’s the role of the [commission] chair in running the agenda or the clerk in ensuring they are following proper procedures. The attorney ought to be the last resort.”

Jarrard, he said, will tell commissioners what he wants, but his role should be to weigh legal risks in certain policy decisions and letting board members decide which route they want to take.

Johnson said he fears Jarrard’s influence has only increased since he left.

Jarrard fires back

The county attorney countered that any item he places on the agenda either pertains to legal issues, or it is simply a convenience of communication.

He said any discussion topics for a commission work session or regular meeting must be approved by at least two board members.

“To the extent they ask me to add [an agenda item] for them, that’s just a function of efficiency,” Jarrard said. “We might have been on the phone and they said, ‘[One commissioner] is agreeable to adding this item on the agenda and I want to sponsor it, Ken, would you add it to the agenda?’”

In those situations, Jarrard said he will add the agenda item if it has the backing of at least two commissioners, but “it’s still the board members’ item,” he said.

The county attorney said whether his office or a department head presents an agenda item is determined by the “size, scope and work allocation.”

In situations where his office has had a heavy role in drafting an ordinance or update, it is not unusual for those involved to have him present it to commissioners.

Jarrard said he gave a recent presentation on a parks and recreation ordinance because it was almost a complete rewrite, and he and his staff worked on its redraft.

He also took issue with Johnson’s claim the board relies too heavily on his comments. He said policy and law are intertwined, and he bristled at the suggestion he acts as anything other than a counselor, adviser and advocate for the county in a courtroom.

“I am very quick to say I am not a replacement, I am not another board member, I don’t have a vote, I don’t want a vote and I’m not a policy maker,” Jarrard said. “What I am is [the board’s] adviser, I will provide you guidance and counseling and advocacy, but I will certainly not make up your mind for you, nor do I believe that any of the board that existed in 2020 or any of the board that exists in 2021 are looking to me to do that.”

Semanson dismisses charge

Semanson acknowledged the board often defers to Jarrard, but in certain cases it was because the former county manager was lacking in his duties.

“We rely a lot on our county attorney, and we rely a lot on our county manager, and in the absence of leadership, we will look for it where we will find it,” Semanson said.

She also said there was “not any validity” to Johnson’s claims his performance review was obscured when the results turned out mostly positive.

Johnson came to Forsyth County after serving in a similar role in Florida, where transparency laws are more stringent, and that spurred many of his issues, Semanson said.

Semanson said there were “multiple junctures” during Johnson’s term where he attempted to apply a different set of standards that don’t apply under Georgia law.

“But I flat out reject the idea that we are conducting business behind closed doors or in any manner that is not kosher with Georgia law,” she said.

Despite his positive review, the county chose not to renew Johnson’s contract, and Semanson pinned the issue on his inability “to resolve some of the issues that made him unsuccessful in working with this board.”

She did not provide details.

“I think it’s pretty standard practice these days people don’t really do much beyond confirming employment, even when it’s positive,” Semanson said. “So out of respect to Mr. Johnson, I’d really rather not get too detailed on the reasons it did not work out.”

‘Resistance to change’

Johnson said Forsyth County leadership is not unique in adhering to past practices, but in some cases, the board’s reluctance to change can hurt taxpayers.

Under Johnson’s watch, there was a proposal to change the way the county issues its debt. Johnson said the strategy he presented is consistent with the procedures of AAA-rated government, but it was not with a preferred banker.

“There wasn’t any under-the-tables issues, it was simply they were used to doing business with a particular guy at CitiBank, and a couple of [commissioners] wanted nothing to do with a more sophisticated way to save us a lot of money,” Johnson said.

Johnson would not speculate on whether bringing back Doug Derrer as interim county manager was a means of preserving the past. He did note that one comment from Johnson’s performance survey noted Derrer just “kind of sat there” during meetings and he did not engage or support staff on issues.

Johnson fears the board’s way of doing business will continue under new County Manager Kevin Tanner.

Johnson said Tanner is likely to face the same challenges he experienced, including a board set in its ways and deference to the county attorney on issues that should be directed to the county manager.

“They have the opportunity to move forward and do well,” he said. “I just don’t know that pattern has shown up here yet.”

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