Lawson’s future as city administrator unclear

According to an out-of-court settlement reached last week, long-time Swainsboro administrator Al Lawson should have been relieved of his duties. However, the future of his employment is evidently up in the air.

Lawson was not in attendance at Monday night’s council meeting. However, The Chronicle learned Lawson was back at City Hall as of Tuesday morning.

The settlement was supposed to be the end of a suit filed by three members of council—John Parker, Rita Faulkner, and Bobbie Collins—against the city and its mayor, Charles Schwabe, and aimed to bring to an end Lawson’s tenure that spanned more than two decades as administrator.

On Wednesday, October 20, the plaintiffs and their attorney, Paul Howard of an Atlanta firm, were prepared to meet the defendants and their attorney, George Rountree. During roll call, however, Howard asked of the sitting judge, The Honorable Robert S. Reeves, if he and Rountree could meet in private. A few hours later, the group returned, having reached a decision to settle contingent upon an understanding about Lawson’s future. He was not to quit his job, nor was council to fire him; instead, he was to take an “accelerated retirement package” with his last day to be Friday, October 22.

The root of the suit dates back to two tumultuous Zoom meetings, one on August 24 and another on September 7. The first meeting entailed inappropriate remarks between the mayor and Lawson, and both meetings entailed a dispute over what constitutes a quorum for Swainsboro City Council as one of its seats has been vacant since July. The plaintiffs alleged in the suit that the quorum discrepancy was due to “race and power.”

In addition, last week’s legal meeting attempted to provide an understanding between the involved parties about what would be a quorum moving forward. Put simply, if the majority of council is present, council can have meetings and vote.

Swainsboro City Council met in-person for the first time in two months on Monday night, and Lawson’s future and the benefits attached to it was a hot topic for mayor and council.

Item B3 under New Business of the meeting’s agenda was set to address the “approval of Mr. Al L. Lawson contract and severance package and benefits.”

Council had to enter executive session—and did so by unanimous vote—to explore the details of this item, specifically whether or not to allow Lawson to keep his benefits in tact. When the group returned to open session, discussion turned somewhat heated once again.

Ultimately, council elected to not provide a severance package and to withdraw any benefits that would’ve been afforded to Lawson had he retired as planned on December 1. (Parker made the motion, Faulkner seconded, and the vote went 3-2 with Johnny Ray Stafford and Julian Sconyers opposing.)

Faulkner reached out to The Chronicle on Tuesday morning to make a comment, offering that she felt as if Mayor Schwabe “made a mockery of the democratic process.”

According to Faulkner, the mayor, during this part of the meeting, cited Supreme Court law in which stated four votes would be needed to pass a motion. This case law, she said, was irrelevant and his citing it essentially went back on the agreement reached on Wednesday.

As an extension of this discussion, council then addressed the need for an interim city administrator. Melissa Kirby, by way of unanimous vote, will fill this position for at least the next 60 days. Faulkner provided the motion, and Parker gave the second.

Next, the city police chief asked council to formalize the hiring of a new public safety officer. The candidate, who is certified and has experience in the field, had already been interviewed and began last Wednesday with the blessing of council. The vote was unanimous with Faulkner making the motion and Parker seconding.

Council also made progress Monday night in terms of city finances. The group finally approved the FY22 Budget, for which all members of council had received a final, comprehensive presentation prior to the meeting for review. The vote to approve the new budget was unanimous with Stafford providing the motion and Sconyers seconding.

Similarly, the city rolled back its millage rate for the first time in years. With the approval, the ’22 millage rate allows for a rollback up to a maximum of 5 mills to 14.405, down from 19.405 in ’21. Sconyers made the motion, Stafford seconded, and the vote was unanimous.

Prior to closing, Faulkner spoke about the intention to rename Gumlog Park in honor of Gerald Phillips. She mentioned that she had put a letter in the newspaper, soliciting opposition from area residents. An update will be delivered at council’s next meeting.

Lastly, Mayor Schwabe asked council to consider postponing its November meeting due to it being planned for exactly one week from Monday and because a new member of council could, if the postponement logistically allowed, join the table and represent Ward 1. Ultimately, council voted to keep its meeting as scheduled.

Mayor and council will next meet Monday, November 2, at 6 p.m. at City Hall.

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