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Judge to rule on Springfield mayor by Aug. 1

POSTED: July 11, 2011 7:44 p.m.

Jeff Northway will learn by Aug. 1 if he will continue as mayor of Springfield. But in the wake of closing arguments and final testimony Friday morning, Northway could be in more serious trouble.

Mickey Kicklighter, attorney for the city council members who petitioned Superior Court to have Northway removed from office, said Northway’s answers to Judge William Woodrum amounted to perjury and also may lead to allegations of fraud.

“I’ve only had one case where a witness has been more deceptive than this one,” Kicklighter said of Northway. “What he says when I ask a question is one thing. What he says when (Northway’s attorney Charles) Herman asks a question is another thing. The problem with that is he under oath. He’s committed perjury in this courtroom.”

Council members said they made up their minds about asking for Northway’s resignation in the wake of what transpired one night at Ulmer Park.

In his closing arguments, Kicklighter said the incidents at Ulmer Park constitute “moral turpitude.”

One night at Ulmer Park

On the eve of a barbecue cookoff at the city park — the city agreed to host the event after arrangements for a Rincon venue fell through — Northway was at his camper when his son and several friends came by. They had been at Kelly’s Tavern until closing time and walked down to the park, knocking on Northway’s camper.

What happened after initiated the chain of events. While some witnesses said they weren’t drinking, others said there was drinking going on. There also was dancing, and one city employee performed a dance for another city employee.

“I sat down and had a cigar and watched them have fun,” Northway said. “I invited nobody to my camper at 2:30 in the morning. I know I’m the mayor; I felt I was doing the right thing. Young people today dance different than you and I did. Like somebody said, it wasn’t the foxtrot.”

The city employee, Wendy Sherrod, who performed the dance, also testified that she saw nothing wrong with the dance she performed for Justin Horton and likened it to the type of dancing seen in nightclubs now.

Kicklighter also said some of the most damaging testimony came from Jeanne Wynn, who recalled a conversation she had with Athena Northway, the mayor’s wife.

Northway also said the party broke up after a while but Kicklighter, in reciting Wynn’s testimony, said Sherrod was in the mayor’s camper in the morning. In her testimony, Wynn said she and Athena Northway drove to the Sonic in Rincon from Ulmer Park and along the way, the mayor’s wife said she was tired “of all things and going to divorce him.”

“She was extremely irate and upset,” Wynn said. “She was talking down to Jeff. She said something about girls in the camper she wanted out of there.”

Athena Northway testified she has not threatened to divorce her husband in the wake of what happened at Ulmer Park.

“I can swear under oath that I did not say I was going to leave my husband,” she said.

Some witnesses said the dance in question was not out of the ordinary with the way dancing in night clubs goes on today. Yet others likened it to a lap dance, and in the resulting Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report, former Springfield Police Officer Brian Overbey said he saw the dancer pull her pants down but not take her underwear off or down. In his interview, Overbey said he knew city officials were there, and he didn’t want to be a part of it, Kicklighter said in his closing argument.

“He created a situation so offensive the city attorney had to conduct an investigation so the city would not face a claim (of sexual harassment),” Kicklighter said.

Springfield City Manager Brett Bennett said he had a couple of beers at Northway’s cookout site on the day of the cookout and later apologized to council members for having alcohol at a city park. Bennett, upon returning from vacation in Pennsylvania, heard rumors about Ulmer Park in city hall and asked then city attorney Hilary Burns what to do about them. That prompted the EEOC internal inquiry and interviews were conducted with two council members present.

No charges or complaints stemmed from the report on the investigation, and Sherrod said she did not view what happened as sexual harassment.

Kicklighter cited what he saw as Northway’s inconsistencies in his testimony on the EEOC inquiry.

“He was aware of rumors and chose not to co-operate. He was all over the place on what he had heard,” Kicklighter said.

Sherrod received flowers from the mayor on her birthday and said she appreciated the gesture since she recently lost a baby.

Kicklighter said Northway became very protective of Sherrod after the Ulmer Park incident, and Northway inquired about installing a time clock in city hall in order to end tension between employees. Sherrod had to come into work 15 minutes early in order to have a 45-minute lunch, and Northway said other employees were coming in closer to 8:30 a.m. instead of having city hall open at 8 a.m.

When he was called to take part in the EEOC internal inquiry, Northway thought he was going to the courthouse as a matter of the ongoing service delivery strategy negotiations. Northway said he was “blindsided” when he was told what the interview would be about. He asked to speak with his lawyer and eventually submitted a written statement.

“I felt I needed to talk to somebody before I answered any questions,” Northway said. “I think I did the right thing, for my protection.”

“'I did what I had to do to protect myself,’” Kicklighter recalled Northway’s position on why he asked to speak with his lawyer at his interview for the EEOC inquiry. “He put himself above the interest of the city.”

Herman pointed out Burns, who as city attorney was conducting the interviews, which were not mandatory, was satisfied with the statement. He also said Northway would have made himself available for an interview with legal representation present.

Herman also cited Burns’ testimony on council members’ assertions that they had been told they had “better be squeaky clean” and that Northway and his attorney were going to come after them.

“She said no threats were made,” Herman said. “She was attempting to explain what protracted litigation may mean.”

Cedar Creek

Herman also said Northway didn’t make implied threats about litigation in his impromptu meeting with EMC Engineering staff about Cedar Creek.

Kicklighter said Northway stood to gain financially from resolving the drainage issues at Cedar Creek. The poor drainage affected phase 2, and Northway’s home is in phase 1, but Kicklighter said resolving the drainage woes would improve the neighborhood as a whole and increase Northway’s home value.

“It was about who was going to pay to solve the problem,” Kicklighter said. “That is clearly a financial interest.”

“I have no motive to increase the value of my home,” Northway said in testimony Thursday.

Kicklighter also pointed out that Bennett had cautioned the mayor several times about a potential conflict of interest on his continued involvement in Cedar Creek drainage.

“But he continued to push it,” Kicklighter said. “Mr. Herman argues he was trying to work in the best interest of the city. The fact is, the law requires him to withdraw. There’s no question under Georgia law that the mayor created a conflict of interest. He says, ‘I’m not sorry, I had a duty to do it, and I’d do it again tomorrow.’”

Northway defended approaching Doug Morgan and Mark Mobley of EMC Engineering, the city’s engineering firm, and asking about Cedar Creek drainage and telling them “all of us didn’t want to get into a lawsuit.”

“The problem has been going on so long, they didn’t have anyone else to turn to,” he said.

Herman noted that Northway has no intention of selling his home. Yet Kicklighter also called upon Northway’s contention that the issue came down to who was to pay for fixing the drainage as a potential financial benefit, since it was a question of either the developers, the city, the engineers or the homeowners footing the bill.

Kicklighter also said Northway violated policy by discussing executive session business in public. In a visit to Old Town Antiques and Bookstore, Northway talked about the city council’s decision on whether to buy the First Effingham Bank building. Stancell had been recording a conversation with Betty Ford Renfro when Northway and his wife Athena came in.

In an email to Carolyn Sanders of First Effingham Bank, Bennett informed her that council members likely weren’t going to move forward with the purchase but it also was not a dead issue.

“I vocally opposed the bank building,” Northway said. “I didn’t think we could afford it. Everybody had reservations if we could afford the building.”

Kicklighter said the last line of the email from Bennett to Sanders is key.

“The bank building is anything but a dead issue,” he said. “What (Northway) is trying to do is undermine the city council.”

Potential violation?

In his first day of testimony, Northway, a field superintendent for Mock Plumbing and Electrical, said he left after an Effingham Chamber of Commerce membership breakfast to check on a job in North Charleston, S.C. His time on the site was about an hour and it took about six hours round trip to get there. Northway also said he did not get paid for travel time.

But his time sheet that week with Mock Plumbing showed 43 hours. Under questioning from Judge Woodrum, Northway said they will shift time charged from one project to another if the first project is close to being over budget.

Mock Plumbing has had several state and federal contracts and has worked on many schools, Northway said. And Kicklighter said changing the hours worked and charged on jobs is tantamount to fraud.

“It is a criminal action,” Kicklighter said. “You can’t put fraudulent time down. He is either in a conspiracy to break state law and federal law, or he lied to you.”

DOT meetings

What took place after the Chamber breakfast, where state Transportation Commissioner Vance Smith and state transportation planner Todd Long spoke, also stoked the ire of council members. Northway spoke briefly with Morgan and Mobley of EMC Engineering about drainage issues at Cedar Creek subdivision. Northway lives in Cedar Creek and had once been president of its homeowners association.

Northway said he left for North Charleston about 9 a.m. and a meeting with local officials and Smith and Long at the Effingham Career Academy was being conducted right after the Chamber breakfast. Springfield was granted 15 minutes with Commissioner Smith and Long to discuss its transportation priorities. Northway did not attend, though council member Charles Hinely and Bennett did.

Northway said that Hinely, as council member overseeing streets and lanes, was more suited to the meeting and Bennett’s duties include participating in such meetings. Herman also said no other council members attended either meeting with the DOT.

Hinely said he’s learned over the years that face-to-face meetings with state officials, especially in the Department of Transportation, are critical. Hinely attended the meeting, along with state Reps. Ann Purcell and Jon Burns, state Sen. Jack Hill. Also involved were many of the DOT’s staff from its Jesup office.

“I was asked where the mayor was, and I said, ‘I have no idea,’” Hinely said, adding he had seen Northway at the Chamber breakfast just before. “He hasn’t supported us with the DOT. He hasn’t supported us with the streetscape project. Frankly, I don’t know what he’s been doing.”

Inside city hall

Northway asked for minutes of meetings but city clerk Linda Rineair said he had to view them in her office. A procedure change put the custody of the minutes in Rineair’s hands, since several of them could not be located.

Northway issued a written reprimand to Rineair but said if he had known about the change in policy beforehand, he wouldn’t have written her up.

The mayor said there were a lot of things going on that he wasn’t informed about and he was only trying to better inform himself about how the city operated.

“You get the feeling they don’t inform you because they don’t want you to know,” Northway said. “Before Mickey Kicklighter got involved, I was getting nothing (in terms of emails).”

Northway requested three files three days before the EEOC investigation commenced and said that was part of his desire to learn what was going on at city hall. One of the files had to do with a bid for grassing at the city’s sprayfield that city council approved that Northway thought was too high. EMC Engineering recommended Indigo F&G after throwing a far lower bid for not meeting specifications. Northway also raised concerns about the bid for a pump. Bennett acknowledged the mayor should have been involved on the pump purchase.

“I’m a mayor that wants to be involved,” Northway said.

Bennett and Rineair both testified that they didn’t think they could continue to work in their respective roles if Northway continued to be mayor. Council members said losing those two would be a debilitating blow to the city.

“You think this entire turmoil started because you asked for three files?” Kicklighter questioned. “And you received those files. And you found no improprieties.”

Northway replied he wasn’t looking for improprieties but was trying to better inform himself.

“So this entire controversy is a conspiracy by these council members to cover up absolutely nothing?” Kicklighter asked.

“No, sir,” Northway said.

Herman said Northway’s insistence on a time clock was seen as an attack on the authority of the city manager.

“It’s pretty clear that Mr. Bennett has a lot of authority,” he said.

Northway also is accused of telling Stancell in his store “you don’t know what I have to put up with” and of calling the council members “yahoos.”

In his closing arguments, Herman said Northway has gone “beyond the duty required of him” as mayor by taking classes on his own through the Georgia Municipal Association. Herman noted Northway attended training sessions at GMA’s Mayors Day, which preceded the annual Effingham Day at the Capitol. But Northway was called into question for not attending meetings scheduled as part of the Effingham Day at the Capitol with the state Environmental Protection Division and the state DOT.

In wrapping up his closing argument before Judge Woodrum, Herman said the petitioners had not shown that the mayor was in violation of Section 45 of the city’s charter.

“The petitioners, despite all the investigation, all the tape recording, all the money spent on attorneys, cannot meet the burden of proof,” he said.

Kicklighter, though, said fixing the drainage problems in Cedar Creek would stop further damage to the roads there, and that could result in a higher home value for Northway. Hinely said though Cedar Creek’s problems are significant, the city has drainage problems throughout and that Ash Street drains 75 percent of the city.

Five of the six council members asked for Northway’s resignation in November 2010 but Northway refused. They then filed a petition with Superior Court for Northway’s removal under Section 45 of the city charter.

Council member Butch Kieffer said had the mayor apologized for what happened at Ulmer Park, it would have made a difference in deciding to ask him to resign.

“That he has shown no remorse tells me he is not really concerned with what other people think,” Kieffer said. “I don’t feel he truly has the city’s best interest at heart.”

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