The tumult that led Fulton County to rely on six county managers in just over two years has largely subsided, but the fallout has not.
Monday, the county found itself defending before the Georgia Supreme Court the firing of one interim county manager, Patrick O’Connor. O’Connor, who had been Fulton’s finance director for nearly two decades before he was elevated then dismissed, claimed his firing was in error, and he should be entitled to his job back — or payment, if that was not practical.
The county could be on the hook not just for back pay, if O’Connor wins his case, but could be required to either give him his job back or pay him even more money.
O’Connor made $181,373 as the county finance director in 2007, according to supreme court filings. It is unclear what his salary was when he was terminated in February 2015.
In Monday’s arguments, though, attorney Matthew Maguire claimed that O’Connor had not actually been fired from his job when Fulton County Commissioners voted 6-0 in two separate votes to suspend him as county manager and replace him as finance director. Though the board had the authority to fire him from the manager’s role, only the county manager could fire him from the finance job, Maguire said.
“The second vote to replace Mr. O’Connor as the chief financial officer, they did not have the authority to do that,” Maguire said. “…I was expecting the county manager would write a letter saying Mr. O’Connor, you’re now terminated. That never happened.”
It will likely be several months before the court issues a decision.
In addition to the question of whether O’Connor was improperly fired, whether O’Connor is entitled to any payment if the court finds he was wrongly terminated is at issue. Dominique Martinez, representing Fulton County, said O’Connor had no guarantee that he would be returned to his former position and salary, though Maguire argued he did.
“Obviously, if it wasn’t the intent to terminate him, he’d still be employed,” Martinez said. “…They didn’t want him back.”
Martinez argued that since O’Connor had not been doing any work for the county, he should not get any payment, even if his firing wasn’t official.
Maguire said the monetary damages were the point of the case. O’Connor is 65, and was fired publicly, making is “difficult” for him to find a new job, Maguire said.
Justices questioned both Maguire and Martinez about the county’s termination policies and salary protection language as they tried to parse what, if anything, O’Connor might be owed.
The idea that the county might have had to take additional steps to fire O’Connor from the position he’d held before his interim post was not absurd, the justices said.
“If no one properly terminates you, you are an employee,” said Justice David Nahmias.
O’Connor was fourth in a line of six interim and permanent county managers between Dec. 2012 and March 2015.
In 2015, O’Connor attributed his firing to comments he made at a meeting with South Fulton Community Improvement District officials. An audio recording of the comments obtained by Channel 2 Action News indicates O’Connor vented about commissioners and his predecessor, Dwight Ferrell, during the meeting.
“This county hasn’t had serious leadership in years and years and years, ” O’Connor said on the recording. He complained commissioners did not properly vet Ferrell and said some commissioners treated Ferrell like “a puppet.”
Commissioners fired Ferrell after a year on the job following complaints from employee union representatives that he was deaf to their concerns. They did not explain why they fired O’Connor.