Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields on Tuesday wrote a check for $10,000 to the city, returning the year-end bonus she received from former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration.
Shields becomes at least the fourth city employee to decline the bonus or return the money.
VIDEO: Previous coverage of City Hall bonuses
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News reported Tuesday that Reed went on a year-end, $518,000 spending spree just before leaving office. He provided top administrators on his staff with $350,000 in bonuses, gave $42,500 to his security detail, and handed out another $67,000 to city employees in raffles and contest awards during a December “executive holiday party.”
Former Human Resources Commissioner Yvonne Yancy also gave her leadership team $57,500 in bonuses just days before quitting her job.
The AJC also learned on Friday that City Council member Andrea Boone returned about $18,000 that she received as a lump sum payout of sick leave accrued before leaving her job as Reed’s director of Constituent Services in August.
Boone said she returned the money out of “an abundance of caution” after she began to suspect that not all employees receive payment for unused sick days. Channel 2 also had filed an April 20 open records request for her payroll records.
Shields explained her reasons for returning the bonus money in an April 25 email to the Atlanta Police Department command staff. She called the bonus “generous,” but said “it did not feel good to receive it.”
“I firmly believe that any monetary accolades that I am afforded should only occur once the department has been taken care of, which means there are roughly 2,000 people before me,” Shields wrote. “I wrote a check back to the city for $10,000 (Tuesday) morning and dropped it at City Hall.
“I’m making you aware of this because we have much work ahead of us, and the people grinding it out every day need to know that you and I have not forgotten how difficult it is to police.”
In an interview with Channel 2 on Friday, Shields said “some of the financial decision-making that’s coming out (at City Hall) has been shocking.” She said she “wrestled” with whether to keep the bonus money.
“So when I got it, you know, that was the end of December, the beginning of January. I took it home and I dropped it in a bank account,” Shields said. “I didn’t put it in savings. I didn’t spend it. I didn’t invest it. I … identified the charities I was going to give it to, but I didn’t want to deal with it. I just did not feel right.”
Ken Allen, a former police union president who retired from APD after 30 years and now works full-time for the union, has been sharply critical of the bonuses going to top officials instead of rank-and-file officers. He said returning the money showed “great leadership.”
“I think it took a lot of courage and guts to do that, especially knowing the former mayor who put her in office would be offended,” Allen said.
Shields, appointed to the city’s top law enforcement position in February 2017, makes $200,000 a year. Other employees who declined the bonuses were: Jalal Slade, the city’s enterprise assets management officer, who received $10,000; Matthew Bartleet, deputy director of Atlanta Innovation Delivery, also awarded $10,000; and Deborah Ann Matthews, who received a $2,500 bonus check as part of Yancy’s human resources staff.
The AJC was unable to reach any of those employees.
Sara Henderson, executive director for the government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, has called for the Bottoms’ administration to end the practice of giving executive bonuses.
“Shields … actions underscore how unfair these party favors and bonuses were, by highlighting that others who serve in her department deserve the money far more than she,” Henderson said. Bottoms “saying that her office will look into the situation is not good enough. It’s time to return City Hall to the citizens of Atlanta and remove the cloud of suspicion that has hung over its rooftop for far too long.”
Chief of Staff Marva Lewis told a City Council committee on Wednesday that the administration thinks the bonuses were “excessive” and they would not hand out tax dollars as contest prizes or in raffles. But Lewis also said that bonuses are sometimes appropriate to attract or retain employees.
Council President Felicia Moore has called the bonuses “illegal,” and the council’s finance committee has suggested legislation that would direct the city’s internal auditor and chief ethics officer to review the legality of the matter. The auditor and ethics officer are independent from the administration and the council.
Shields said in the email to her commanders that part of her decision centered on low pay received by APD officers.
“I routinely ask much of you all and your staff, I know that,” the email says. “I also know that the pay of our employees needs addressing and the salaries paid need to reflect all of the demands that are put on them being public safety personnel in a large and vibrant city.”
Atlanta police Lt. Steve Zygaj, the president of the local police union, said word of the returned bonus has tricked down to the officers his organization represents, and “they respect that.”