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State Supreme Court overturns decision
Justices rule in favor of ousted Springfield mayor Jeff Northway
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Mayor Northway timeline

November 2009—Jeff Northway elected mayor

January 2010—Northway takes office

October 2010—City council members file ethics complaint against Northway; ethics committee finds no violations

November 2010—Northway asked to resign; he refuses

November 2010—Majority of city council files petition with Superior Court asking for Northway’s removal

July 2011—A three-day trial is held before Judge William Woodrum

July 2011—Judge Woodrum upholds the council members’ petition, stripping Northway of his position as mayor

August 2011—Northway files appeal with state Supreme Court; presides over city council meeting.

August 2011—Judge Woodrum files order stating his previous ruling is self-executing

March 2012—Oral arguments held before state Supreme Court justices

June 2012—In an unanimous decision, justices rule in favor of Northway

The state’s highest court has overturned an Effingham County Superior Court judge’s decision to remove Springfield mayor Jeff Northway from office and has granted Northway’s motion to dismiss.

Judge William Woodrum granted Springfield City Council members’ request to have Northway removed from office. Judge Woodrum issued his order less than a month after a three-day proceeding last July. Council members sought Northway’s ouster after voting to ask the first-term mayor to step down in November 2010.

But Northway refused, and council members filed a petition with Superior Court seeking Northway’s removal from office.

Justice Robert Benham, writing the opinion, with all the justices concurring, said the "allegations in the petition state that (city council members) requested (Northway) to resign and that (he) failed to do so. These allegations, taken as true, can not explicitly or implicitly be interpreted to support the relief appellees were seeking — namely, appellant’s removal from elected office. Elected officials in Georgia have a property right in their office that cannot be taken away without due process of law."

"We’re trying to figure out what our next step is," said Springfield city attorney Rick Rafter of the justices’ decision.

The city has 10 days to file a motion to reconsider. Rafter and Charles Herman, Northway’s attorney, presented oral arguments before the state Supreme Court in March. Rafter said he wasn’t surprised by the decision, though he was surprised at some of the opinions.

"I thought we had a pretty good argument," he said. "I thought our argument was adequate and covered the issue. From that standpoint, I was surprised."

Northway has not presided over a city council meeting since Aug. 9, 2011, less than two weeks after Judge Woodrum granted the council members’ petition to remove him from his office. Springfield City Council is not scheduled to meet again in regular session until July 10, though a special called meeting for an executive session has been set for this afternoon at 4 p.m.

A message left for Herman had not been returned by press time.

Northway filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court on Aug. 4, 2011. Judge Woodrum denied Northway’s motion to dismiss the petition against him and also issued an order in late August 2011 stating his order to remove Northway from office was self-executing.

Under the city’s charter, four council members ask 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.

Herman had cited Stapleton v. City of Ludowici in his argument that the city’s charter, specifically Section 45, was unconstitutionally overbroad. Justice Benham cited that case in the high court’s opinion.

"Even under our notice pleading system," he wrote, "appellees were required to put forth plainly-stated allegations in the petition which, taken as true, would support removal of appellant from office under Section 45– i.e., allegations that demonstrated appellant’s purported ‘malpractice in office, willful neglect of duty, gross and willful abuse of the powers ...or (incompetence) ...or (unfitness).’

"Appellant’s mere refusal to resign on request does not create any basis for the relief requested. The trial court erred when it denied appellant’s motion to dismiss and allowed the case to proceed with the petition as pled."

Four of the six council members at the time brought an ethics complaint against Northway in October 2010. The city’s ethics committee found no ethics violations, but council members asked for Northway to resign the next month.

Under the city charter, should the mayor refuse to resign under Section 45, the council members may petition Superior Court to have a judge hear testimony and issue a decision.

Judge Woodrum, in his ruling in favor of the council members, noted Northway’s conduct that had been seen as undermining other city officials. Also, recorded statements from Northway were construed as casting the city in a negative light and as damaging to the city’s credibility.

Further, council members alleged Northway had violated executive session procedures by openly discussing what he and council members talked about in those meetings. Judge Woodrum also ordered that Northway failed to recuse himself in matters involving his neighborhood and essentially, his property’s value, that he had engaged in inappropriate activities and he had wrongfully reprimanded the city clerk for doing her job.

Herman argued that Judge Woodrum made 11 errors in his decision and the petition filed against Northway should have been dismissed because there was support for the allegations against him and his constitutional due process was violated. Northway did not receive written notice of the dozen charges council members levied against him until June 2011.

"The error was not harmless because throughout the proceedings appellant was forced to guess as to what charges he would be required to defend himself," Justice Benham wrote.

Rafter argued before the justices that the complaint filed under Section 45 only has to give notice of claim against the defendant. Rafter said Northway could have filed a motion for greater specifics against the charges against him but did not.

"He evidently understood what they were," Rafter told justices in the March 6 oral arguments. "He enumerated them in his response to the ethics committee.

Rafter said the tape recording of Northway was made a month before council members sought the petition to remove him from office. Though the ethics committee did not find Northway guilty of a violation, Rafter told justices that it is a two-step process, with the final decision left up to council members.