Despite admonitions from his own council and some residents of Peachtree City, Mayor Don Haddix is standing firm - he’s not going to reimburse the city for the legal fees settlement of his libel suit generated. At Thursday night’s Peachtree City meeting, council asked Haddix to pay back the $10,000 he received as reimbursement.
On Tuesday, Haddix had responded to questions about the reimbursement of his legal fees in the libel suit settled in December by saying “GIRMA (Georgia Interlocal Risk Management Agency) determined that I was covered under the city’s indemnification ordinance. You can’t separate the person from the office. I’m on duty 24/7 so, according to them, I was covered under the indemnification ordinance.”
He stuck to that stance throughout the meeting.
Under the usual monthly reports there a report was included on the cost of Peachtree City’s litigation services for 2012. On that sheet is a line item indicating that Haddix was reimbursed $9,969.40 by the city for legal fees in connection with a lawsuit filed against by former mayor Harold Logsdon.
The money was part of the fee that settled a libel suit between the two in December 2011.
It wasn’t just council members who were upset with the payment.
Peachtree City resident Tom Langley stepped up to the podium as soon as the council opened the floor to public comment
“It’s a shame to see only three people here tonight,” he said. “If the lawsuit was against the city, then I have no problem with the legal bills being paid, but you were sued personally and it’s my tax money paying the legal bills. That’s asinine and stupid and if you take the money, I’ll be sure to be one of the ones to get you un-elected.”
Resident Steve Thaxton stepped up next.
“I understand you were sued for a slanderous comment made to another individual and you chose not to apologize. You chose to incur the legal fees and you defended yourself against that personal suit. I don’t believe I should pay for that or the insurance company should. You should do the right thing and the council should take action to avoid this ever happening again.”
Resident Peggy Perkins agreed, saying this was a “personal” lawsuit and “this is your responsibility and your personal bill and not our lawsuit. Do the right and responsible thing and pay your bill.”
Saying she wanted to have some things clarified for the public, councilmember Kim Learnard, with the questioning of city attorney Ted Meeker, determined that the suit was brought against Haddix as an individual and not as the mayor of Peachtree City.
Haddix’s contention that he was covered was challenged by every council member.
According to Meeker, the city pays premiums to its risk management company each year to receive liability coverage as set on its declaration page - including legal fees and damages- and there was a $25,000 deductible.
Councilman George Dienhart told Haddix that his comments were not made in his ‘capacity as mayor’ and that he should ‘do the right thing’ and pay the city back.
“The legalities were resolved and I’m not paying it back,” said Haddix, cautioning the council that at any time any one of them could be sued personally for something they had done within the capacity of their jobs. “If you felt it was within your capacity, would you pay it?”
“I’m a big believer in personal responsibility. If I had done something, I’d pay for it. It’s not your responsibility as mayor to call out any public official for perceived shortcomings. This couldn’t end any other way,” said Dienhart and asked Haddix at least four times to “do the right thing and pay the city back.”
It was a quiet entreaty compared to councilman Eric Imker’s volley of questions launched at Meeker.
Imker pointed out he had already sent an email to Meeker saying “This seems to be a private civil matter between Logsdon and Haddix and has nothing to do with the city. There may have been city emails used but this is a screw-up by a private person defaming another not related to city business. I don't want to see our citizens paying one penny to defend or mitigate this issue.”
Meeker’s own billing to the city was a result of the time he spent analyzing the suit to see if there was any potential exposure from the city’s perspective.
“In short, while a lawsuit could always be filed, I do not think that there is any city exposure for this matter. From that point forward, I have served as a point of contact only. Understand that I was a witness to all of the meetings that Mayor Logsdon conducted. If this proceeds to a lawsuit, I will most assuredly be a witness. To that end, I have been careful to avoid giving any legal advice to Don. I have told him, both verbally and in writing, that as a potential witness I could not represent him. Having said all of that, no time has been, or will be billed, to the city other than the initial research that was done to determine potential city liability,” Meeker had told Imker in a return email.
Imker hammered away, pointing out that Meeker had invoiced the city, in connection with the libel case for $165 on April 25, 2011 and $176 on April 27, 2011 for “research regarding he defamation claim by virtue of a telephone conversation with Mr. Rick Lindsey” and for research regarding the review of a defamation retraction letter. Lindsey, Peachtree City’s former attorney, represented Logsdon in the suit.
Meeker was also asked if GIRMA had “initially declined the mayor’s claim and by doing so indicate his action was that of a personal nature not related to city business?” GIRMA reviewed and denied the claim three times before it was ultimately sent through for payment and then the city was billed for the nearly $10,000 expenditure, after, Imker pointed out, Meeker put together what amounted to an appeals package.
Imker asked to see the letter and attachments, which the council hadn’t received.
Dienhart, Imker, Learnard and councilmember Vanessa Fleish all reiterated that Meeker wasn’t responsible for the ultimate outcome, that he had been, as the city’s attorney, asked to “do certain things and he did them.”
“Was it pointed out in the appeal package that Don Haddix essentially unilaterally negotiated an expenditure instead of Peachtree City’s governing body?” Meeker said no.
“Did your documentation at any time include the statement by the plaintiff that he sued Don Haddix personally and not the city to ensure the taxpayers did not pay?” Meeker said no he didn’t.
“I was surprised to see in our agenda packet published last Friday the nearly $10,000 bill related to this case. Do you, as our city attorney, consider it a matter of lack of ethical judgment by the mayor to not bring the latest decision by GIRMA to the attention of this council for discussion and approval of payment instead of us [meaning my fellow council members and the taxpayers] finding out about this payment in a single line item of 45 line items near the bottom of a list on a single page in a large monthly report package?”
“I’d have to look at the ethics ordinance to see,” Meeker responded.
“Since you earlier stated you couldn’t represent Don Haddix, then wasn’t Don Haddix obligated to find the next least expensive representation or could he have hire a team of lawyers costing not thousands of dollars but potentially tens of thousands of dollars?” Meeker said he could whatever what he wanted to do. The council didn’t have a say in it.
“You indicated the $9,969.40 included a $3,000 settlement. In effect, aren’t the taxpayers being asked to pay for Don Haddix’s personal acceptance of the agreed settlement with the former mayor?”
“If that $3,000 is the settlement figure then the answer to your question is yes.”
“When Don Haddix negotiated this deal, was he negotiating for himself or on behalf of the taxpayers?”
“Do you think this whole issue could have been resolved quickly and completely, without all the thousands of dollars expended, if an apology early on, as the former mayor seemed to have indicated would settle the issue, had been given?”
“This is ticking me off,” Haddix said. “Assumptions are being made. I apologized, he refused to accept it.”
Haddix contended, and was challenged on the fact, that he apologized in the print of a local newspaper and again, Logsdon turned down the apology. Haddix’s apology did appear in a local newspaper on Tuesday, June 7, 2011.
“Then why are we paying $10,000?” Learnard asked.
“You’re asking the wrong person,” Haddix returned.
“You have already judged me guilty,” Haddix said.
“I’m asking for $10,000 on behalf of the people of Peachtree City. I’m not judging you,” added Dienhart.
Additionally, councilmembers questioned the ethics of hiring an attorney to represent him that has been in litigation with the city.
Haddix’ s attorney, John Mrozek, has filed several federal suits against the city, but Haddix pointed out that these suits were filed after the libel suit was settled.
Imker asked Meeker to file a further appeal with GIRMA saying that Haddix, not the governing body of Peachtree City, unilaterally chose private legal representation, including the fact that Haddix, not the governing body, personally accepted what appears to be a negotiated settlement to conclude this lawsuit.
“Include the fact that Haddix had an opportunity to end this case without all the expense but willfully and unilaterally decided to fight this case despite the consequences it had on the taxpayers, knowing the governing body of Peachtree City would not have approved of spending taxpayer funds to fight a court case for this issue, knowing the issue of an apology would have ended the case.
“Can you include in this appeal that Don Haddix unilaterally negotiated an expenditure instead of Peachtree City’s governing body, knowing he was going to ask the taxpayers to ultimately pay the bill, and knowing the governing body would not have approved, could this be considered an ethics violation?”
Meeker said he could file that appeal.
“Everything about this is so wrong. There are times when one has to do the right thing. Clearly this is one of them,” Imker noted. “Even though our administrative regulations indicate Don Haddix’s email was official city communications, our regulations are often overridden by ordinances and in this case a higher authority, that being GIRMA.
“If the right thing can’t or won’t be done then I think we need to follow up with a reconsideration request to GIRMA in an attempt to save the taxpayers what has now become a total bill of $10,585.40 because of all the expenses, caused by Don Haddix, related to this case.”