City DopeNews

Mayor and Commission Fire Internal Auditor Stephanie Maddox

Internal Auditor Stephanie Maddox. Credit: Athens-Clarke County

The Athens-Clarke County Commission last week voted unanimously to fire Internal Auditor Stephanie Maddox, a top official who worked directly for the mayor and commission to evaluate ACC government operations.

The vote came just three months after the commission awarded Maddox, who has served in the position since 2013, a new two-year contract. There was already friction between Maddox and the mayor and some commissioners, who expressed concerns about her pace of work and managerial skills. Maddox chalked those criticisms up to racism, revealing at a June press conference organized by the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement that she had filed a federal discrimination complaint against Mayor Kelly Girtz and Manager Blaine Williams. The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission dismissed her complaint.

The last straw in the ongoing friction apparently came during a closed session last week when Maddox refused to meet with the mayor and commission without her attorney present. The mayor and commission then scheduled a called meeting for the evening of Friday, Sept. 24. After meeting in closed session for about 40 minutes, the commission voted 8-0 to terminate Maddox’s contract. Commissioners Mike Hamby and Ovita Thornton were not present.

Girtz told Flagpole that he could not comment on confidential personnel matters. Maddox told Flagpole that the implication that she was unwilling to meet was “completely false,” and that her attorney had been present in previous meetings.

Originally hired under Mayor Nancy Denson, Maddox had worked as a school parapro when Girtz was principal of Classic City High School. She took a job as a budget analyst in the ACC Finance Department in 2010, then moved to the auditor’s office as an analyst four years later. In 2015, Denson nominated her to fill the vacant position after a nationwide search. Her job is to serve as a counterweight to the county manager, who runs the government day to day, and to examine departments to ensure they’re operating efficiently.

Maddox’s allegations date back to 2019, when she filed an open records request for information related to a 2018 study on ACC employees’ salaries. At various times she stated that the information was for audit purposes, although she had not been assigned to do an audit on salaries, and because she was seeking a raise for an employee. However, an investigator concluded she was seeking the information to support a raise for herself. She and Williams had an argument, and Williams told her in an email that an open records request could be viewed as hostile, and that as a government employee, she should go through the proper channels. Maddox withdrew the request. 

Former assistant manager Jestin Johnson, who is Black and witnessed the argument, sided with Williams. The investigation found no evidence that Williams or Girtz acted based on Maddox’s gender or race, according to a draft version of the report.

Joey Carter, a local progressive activist, wrote a letter to District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez requesting that she investigate a potential violation of the Georgia Open Records Act. Gonzalez demurred, because her office prosecutes felonies, and an open records violation is a misdemeanor. Carter then made the same request of Solicitor General C.R. Chisholm, who prosecutes misdemeanor charges. Chisholm referred the request to the Georgia Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council, saying he had a conflict of interest because the mayor and commission have significant influence over the solicitor’s budget. The council’s director, Pete Skandalakis, also declined to investigate.

On a separate track, a law firm hired by ACC was investigating Maddox’s discrimination allegations. Carter somehow received a draft copy of its report and included it in his complaints. Ordinarily, draft documents are exempt from the open records law, but by including it, Carter made it public, and Flagpole contributor Chris Dowd, who also runs the Athens Politics Nerd, was able to obtain it. 

The 132 pages of documents paint an unflattering picture of Maddox. She worked odd hours, sometimes coming into the office early and staying late, allegedly to avoid interactions with coworkers, and sometimes disappearing for days or weeks at a time. Employees interviewed by the investigator said she was obsessed with details like the font and margin size in reports, to the exclusion of the actual content, and she routinely belittled her employees.

“Cumulatively… they paint a consistent picture of a controlling, vindictive and retaliatory supervisor who struggles with time management and routinely promises work product that she does not, perhaps cannot, deliver,” concluded Karen Woodward, a lawyer with a Peachtree Corners firm specializing in civil rights and employment matters who conducted the internal investigation.

Girtz said the draft likely dated back to last October or November, but that it probably does not differ substantially from a final version he said would be released within the next 10 days.

Maddox told Flagpole that the mayor and commission are conflating two different issues: The EEOC complaint she filed and subsequent ACC investigation, and the Performance Improvement Plan she was put on. “They are tied, but they’re not supposed to be. They are two different things,” she said.

The EEOC complaint, though, included an element of the PIP. Maddox alleged that Girtz told her to “shut up” during a discussion of her performance as auditor. According to Maddox, Girtz also told her she had a problem with morale in her office, which Maddox said she was not aware of. She told Flagpole she thought she had a good relationship with them, buying them gifts and taking them out for pedicures. Those same employees complained to both Girtz and Woodward about their boss, Maddox. 

According to Maddox, she attempted to retrain one employee after the position was reclassified, but the employee didn’t catch on to new duties and left in December of 2019. Maddox said she wasn’t in a rush to replace the employee because she was getting more work done without having to go back and correct someone else’s errors. Later, when Maddox took Family and Medical Leave Act time off during the pandemic, she returned to find the other employee in her office had transferred. A third employee also transferred, taking a pay cut. One full-time intern complained to Girtz, and later Woodward, that he was being assigned menial tasks, but two other interns said they had a good experience.

Maddox said she hired a human resources consultant who told her the former employees are racist and didn’t like taking orders from a younger Black woman. She also said the investigation was one-sided, and she was never asked for documentation to back up her claims. As far as the PIP, she said the commission kept moving the goalposts; for example, moving up a deadline for her to take a certification exam from the end of the year to the end of September.

“They need something to say, ‘We’re going to get rid of her,’” Maddox said. Meanwhile, she added, “We’re allowing the people who harmed me to go free, to continue going on making a living.” 

On top of the investigation and concerns about her management style, commissioners have also expressed frustration about the pace of Maddox’s work as auditor and her failure to fill the vacant positions in her office for more than a year. Last year, Maddox was still working on audits assigned to her in 2018. Two others, on the Animal Services Department and Fleet Management Division, were only recently released after Maddox had promised the Audit Committee they were nearly finished for months.

All of this might appear to be headed toward a lawsuit. As part of the contract she signed in June, Maddox is entitled to six months of severance pay (approximately $45,000), but only if she gives up her right to sue.