Jeff Northway is out as mayor of Springfield, following a judge’s ruling handed down Monday.
Judge William Woodrum, in a six-page order signed Friday, sided with the city council members who filed a petition in November 2010 to have Northway removed from office. Four council members, represented by attorney Mickey Kicklighter, and Northway were in a three-day proceeding from July 6-8.
“We were surprised by the decision,” said Charles Herman of Bignault and Carter, Northway’s lead counsel in the matter.
Herman said Northway plans to appeal the decision.
“He’s very disappointed,” Herman said of his client’s reaction upon learning he was removed from office by the judge’s order.
Judge Woodrum wrote that “there is complete and substantial evidence on the record as a whole in support of the Petitioner’s Petition for Removal.” In his order, Judge Woodrum said Northway’s credibility was called into question by his inconsistent testimony.
“The Respondent was initially called to testify by the Petitioners for cross-examination on the first day of the bench trial, at which time the Respondent testified that he had never espoused that the city council was racially motivated,” Judge Woodrum wrote. “Again, on the last day of the bench trial, during re-cross, the Respondent testified that the issue pertaining to the water and sewer connection was not racial; but, a few minutes later, on re-direct, the Respondent testified that councilmen had made racial comments in connection with the water and sewer line.
“The Court finds that this is just one of many examples of the Respondent’s inconsistent testimony throughout the trial,” the judge concluded.
He also said the record “reveals multiple instances of misconduct” by Northway and that the evidence supports a finding that Northway lacks “the administrative ability to perform his public duties.”
With the judge’s decision, Jeff Ambrose, the mayor pro tem, will serve as mayor. Ambrose presided over the July 26 city council meeting, which would have been Northway’s last as mayor.
Why they asked for removal
Council members had asked Northway to resign in November, and he refused. They then petitioned the Superior Court, under Section 45 of the city charter, to have Northway removed from office.
Council members based their request to have Northway removed from office on a series of accusations, starting with his “action or inaction permitted a lewd or offensive activity when a lap dance between city employees took place on city property at a public function hosted” by Northway on behalf of the city, “who witnessed and condoned the activity adjacent to his mobile camper.”
The petitioners also charged that Northway, when informed an internal investigation stemming from the Ulmer Park incident was being conducted, “failed to cooperate with the EEOC investigation.” They also charged that Northway engaged in abuse and intimidation of city employees and that he or his representative made threats against council members.
They also said Northway “has undermined the authority of the City Council and the City Manager” and, that he alleged council members have engaged in improper bidding practices. Northway also made accusations of racism against council members,
Judge Woodrum wrote of the council members’ basis for their case, and they also charged Northway with neglecting his duty as mayor. They further accused Northway of placing “his own interests before the interests of the City of Springfield” and that he sought financial benefit due to his position as mayor.
Council members also sought removal, Judge Woodrum, when Northway requested minutes of meetings that since have been discovered to be missing and that Northway is unable to work with the council, the city manager and city employees.
“The issue before the Court,” the judge wrote, “is whether the evidence supports a showing of conduct not becoming an elected official such that said official be removed from office. In discussing conduct not becoming, words such as malpractice, malfeasance, misfeasance, nonfeasance and misconduct are raised.
“It has been said that in order to constitute malfeasance or misfeasance, the wrongful act must be accompanied by some evil intent or motive, or with such gross negligence as to be equivalent to fraud. … It is unnecessary to show a specific intent to defraud or that the wrongful act is criminal or corrupt in character in order to establish malfeasance in office. One act of malfeasance alone can be grounds for removal of a public official, and willful action is not specifically required.”
Judge Woodrum found that Northway was not responsible for any missing minutes and that the evidence did not show he used his position for financial gain.
“Further, any inability to get along with certain city employees, in and of itself, is not sufficient to remove an elected official from office,” the judge wrote.
And while Northway may have done nothing to stop the acts at Ulmer Park, “none of the participants believed anything improper or immoral had occurred and removal based upon bad judgment is not supported by Georgia law,” Judge Woodrum wrote.
“In a lot of ways, the mayor was vindicated on the original allegations brought against him,” Herman said.
Judge says what has merit in the case
But the judge was concerned that issues of impropriety exist in regards to the allegation Northway had undermined city council and City Manager Brett Bennett.
“Additionally, the Court is concerned that the Respondent has placed his own interests before the interests of the City of Springfield,” Judge Woodrum wrote.
The most harmful evidence, according to the judge, is a taped conversation between Northway, his wife Athena, business owner Jamey Stancell and historian Betty Renfro. Renfro was in Stancell’s store to discuss Springfield’s history, and Stancell was recording the discussion when Northway and his wife entered the store.
Not only did Northway continually make incriminating statements about council members, Judge Woodrum said, “he made those statements with an understanding that the statements could get him into trouble.” The judge also found that Northway made “unsupported and unsolicited” statements on racial bias and improper bidding practices on the council’s part, and those statements would negatively affect the city’s credibility.
Judge Woodrum also said Northway disclosed information that was reserved for the city council’s executive session, which was in violation of state law.
The judge also said Northway, as the mayor and a resident of Cedar Creek, should have recused himself from discussions on resolving the drainage issues in the subdivision. He also said Northway, “without good reason,” wrongfully and unjustly reprimanded city clerk Linda Rineair for her attempt to act lawfully and reasonably with regards to access to city meeting minutes.
Five of the six council members at the time signed on to the petition but a schedule conflict prevented Kenny Usher from taking part in the trial and he was removed from the petition.
Under Section 45, four members can ask for the mayor to resign if he is deemed to be “guilty of malpractice in office, willful neglect of duty, gross and willful abuse of powers entrusted to them or for any reason become incompetent or unfit” to serve.
Council members declined to comment Monday afternoon, but Herman continued to defend his client’s tenure as mayor.
“In his entire term in office, he’s done everything in his capacity to benefit the public and the people who voted him into office,” Herman said. “The mayor felt he was performing his duty as mayor. When you look at the city charter provisions on the duties of the mayor, it says the mayor ‘shall see that each department is being honestly and efficiently conducted upon business principles and without regard to politics.’ The mayor felt like he was doing that.”
There are two years remaining on the term, which ends in 2013. Northway won the 2009 election, getting 138 of 160 votes cast.