OPINION: Calls to criminally investigate ACC Manager are baseless

Auditor Stephanie Maddox caused a stir recently after holding a press conference where she accused Mayor Kelly Girtz and ACC Manager Blaine Wiliams of intimidation and discrimination. She says the intimidation was severe enough to prevent her from carrying out her duties as auditor. 

Central to this controversy is a wage study completed by the ACC government in 2018.

ACC Auditor Stephanie Maddox
ACC Auditor Stephanie Maddox

In October 2018, Maddox made a formal, legal request for essentially all documents related to the wage study covering more than a year of work. While she was eventually able to gain access to many of the documents she requested, she says that she was obstructed and intimidated into dropping the remainder of her request. As a result, some of her supporters are openly questioning Williams’ character and even calling for a criminal investigation of Williams and Girtz (even though Girtz had not yet been sworn-in as Mayor when Maddox rescinded her request and had nothing to do with it). 

ACC Manager Blaine Williams
ACC Manager Blaine Williams

Some Athenians may wonder if Williams discouraged Maddox’s request inappropriately out of a desire to prevent her (and the public) from gaining access to certain pieces of information. They might even view Maddox’s conflict with Williams as a heroic effort to uncover a dark truth that our local government wanted to keep hidden. 

But is that a sensible way to look at this situation?

An official investigation is currently underway which should shed some light on the issue, but in the meantime, let’s take a look at what we already know about the wage study. What secrets might be hidden within it?

The 2018 Wage Study

Background

In 2016, Athens for Everyone and the Economic Justice Coalition approached the local government as part of their living wage campaign and requested that the lowest-paid county employees be given a significant wage increase. Williams, who had just recently been promoted to his current position as ACC Manager, saw this as an opportunity to do a related project he’d already been considering. He asked the commission to fund a comprehensive wage study of every local government job position, something which hadn’t been done since unification in the early 1990s.

Living wage advocates had no particular objection to such a study, and neither did the commission. It passed as part of the ACC fiscal year 2017 budget.

The local government hired Management Advisory Group (MAG) International, Inc. to complete the study, which they finalized in December of 2018. The full 460-page report is publicly available online.

What was the purpose of the study?

The ACC government often finds itself competing with nearby cities like Atlanta to recruit and retain talented employees. While Athens has many endearing qualities that help us stand out as an attractive place to live and work, prospective employees also want to know that they’ll be well-paid.

But the local government has thousands of employees holding hundreds of job titles — it’s not always easy to know what salary level would be competitive or what they should offer. That’s where wage studies like the one in 2018 come in. Williams’ human resources team believes that it’s a good idea to take a comprehensive look at the ACC government’s wage structure every five to seven years so we can stay competitive with other communities. 

Williams differs in this respect from his predecessor, former Manager Alan Reddish, who never examined the salaries of his employees quite as thoroughly. It had been decades since the last wage study! That meant the 2018 study was a huge undertaking which eventually resulted in a large change to the ACC government’s salary structure, with most positions from the top to the bottom having their salary range tweaked at least slightly.

How did ACC employees react to the study?

Maddox claimed at her press conference that “hundreds” of ACC employees were upset at the results of the study, which is one reason she gave for wanting to dig deeper into the topic. Public safety employees in particular were not happy with the results, and that’s why the ACC government created a separate study and pay plan for them in later years.

While 78% of employees were given a raise as a result of the 2018 study according to the ACC website, that still leaves hundreds of employees who were not given a raise. It’s understandable if they were upset. However, it’s important to note that the disappointed employees would have been the ones already being paid in accordance with the market value of their skills and experience. It’s certainly reasonable to question the purpose or results of this study. But bringing the salaries of ACC government positions in line with their market value is what the study was designed to do; it was not designed to give merit or cost-of-living raises.

While some employees may find the results of the study unfair, dissatisfaction is something that would have been easy to anticipate in advance. Whenever you give 78% of people a raise, of course the other 22% will tend to be upset. Perhaps that’s human nature. It’s not evidence that anything nefarious was happening behind the scenes.

Maddox and Williams clash

The pay study was nearing completion in October 2018 when a draft of the report was released to heads of various ACC departments. Maddox, who had two employees at the time, was told that an employee of hers with three years of experience would receive a raise of over $3,500. Her other employee, who had 25 years of seniority, would not receive any pay increase at all.

At her press conference, Maddox said she was surprised by this result. So surprised in fact that she filed a formal open records request on October 29, 2018 to dig deeper and discover the reasoning behind it. She requested not just the 460-page study itself but also a massive pile of supporting documents as you can see below:

Maddox’s Oct. 29, 2018 open-records request.

There’s already something strange going on here, but it’s not the fact that one employee of Maddox’s got a raise while the other did not. While the formula used in the study did take into account years of service, it also factored in the market value for these job positions. It seems that Maddox’s 25-year veteran was already being paid at or above the calculated market value for their position, which appears to be why they did not receive a salary increase.

The ACC Finance Department has provided a means for disappointed employees to get an individual review of the results of the study as it relates to them, if requested. Maddox did not indicate if her employee took advantage of that opportunity or not.

Instead, what’s strange about Maddox’s request is the request itself. 

In an email to Maddox obtained by APN in an open records request, Williams said that it was “a new precedent.” Presumably, this means that no auditor had ever filed an open-records request before as part of their work in ACC history, or only in very rare circumstances. After all, why would they? The auditor has near complete access to any and all records they might need in the course of their work, without having to file a formal open records request.

Why didn’t Maddox request the information she wanted through her normal procedure? Maddox didn’t explain the unusual action at her press conference.

Williams appears to have been blindsided by Maddox’s request. From Maddox’s telling of the story, Williams responded somewhat aggressively and asked her to withdraw her request, which she did. He explained his opposition in an email:

Blaine Williams email to Stephanie Maddox
An email Blaine Williams sent to Stephanie Maddox on Nov. 7, 2018

Open records requests have legal requirements for speed and thoroughness that normal requests for information do not have. Maddox says that financial staff told her such a broad request would probably take a minimum of three weeks to complete. According to them, the long response time was due to the requirement that every document matching Maddox’s request from over a year of work, including thousands of pages, be legally reviewed and ultimately provided.

Williams objected to what he felt was a misuse of staff time — why should human resources staff devote weeks to fulfilling Maddox’s request instead of performing their regular, potentially more important duties? Even if three weeks turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration, there’s no doubt that Maddox could obtain the documents she was looking for much quicker without the legal requirements and other hindrances that accompany formal open records requests.

Williams also objected to Maddox’s request because of the way the public might (and in fact has) perceived it. Is our local government hiding something from us? In a sense, it might even be reasonable to think they were after Maddox apparently felt the need to take such an unprecedented step.

So, why did Maddox file the open-records request?

Why did she do it? Maddox was unavailable for comment on this story. We might never know the answer to this question, but the request certainly reveals a deep distrust of her coworkers in the ACC government. It shows that her relationships with people like Williams had become dysfunctional even before the alleged intimidation and discrimination which she described at her press conference.

What dark secrets might even theoretically be hidden within a three year-old compensation study? Should anyone care? These kinds of studies would surely seem pretty boring to those whose salaries aren’t dependent on the results. If there are juicy secrets being kept within the ACC government, this 2018 study wouldn’t be my first choice of where to start looking for them (or even my second or third), but it was where Maddox chose to draw a line in the sand. Why?

If Maddox had good reason to believe that the 2018 wage study merited further investigation, she would have made this clear to commissioners on the audit committee who oversee her work. Yet, the audit committee did not place the study on the auditor’s work plan. In fact, the current chair of that committee, Melissa Link, told APN that she didn’t “recall ever seriously discussing an audit of that study.”

It must not have seemed very important at the time. How much less so does it seem now?

Conclusion

If there is a reason to believe a dark secret was contained within the 2018 wage study and that Williams discouraged Maddox’s open-record request so he could better keep this secret, the reason has not yet been identified to the audit committee or the public. Yet, Maddox surely would have shared it with us by now, if such a reason existed.

Assuming that no such reason exists, it becomes clear that Williams was never attempting to deny Maddox access to any information regarding this study. Calls for Williams to be criminally prosecuted over this are simply absurd. I have no doubt that such a case would be laughed out of court.

In fact, Maddox eventually gained access to much of what she was requesting — not only did she get the study itself (which is publicly available), she also gained access to its draft versions and how it affected ACC employees individually. She also received answers to many further questions in a long email thread with ACC human resources staff.

ACC HR Director Jeff Hale even offered to sit down with Maddox in person to answer any remaining questions, an offer which she declined.

The only reason why the three year-old wage study is relevant today is because it’s being used by Maddox to support her claims about the ACC government’s hostile workplace environment, particularly for women of color. We should believe women when they come forward with stories of workplace discrimination. This is a serious charge which should be (and is being) investigated. It’s possible there may be a lot of work left to do within the ACC government before it meets community standards for an intimidation and discrimination-free environment.

While we demand that this important work continue, we should nevertheless avoid blurring the line between intimidation, discrimination and other negative behaviors like secrecy or opaqueness. It’s very possible, for example, that Williams committed a microaggression (or worse) against Maddox while at the same time running a very transparent and accessible local government. He may have been intimidating or discriminatory in one encounter with Maddox, but that does not mean he was purposefully denying her or anyone access to information.

There is no evidence that anything is being hidden regarding the 2018 wage study. There is also no evidence that Auditor Maddox was ever prevented from examining any information important to her work as far as I know. At least, none was presented at her press conference or anywhere else I’ve seen.

If anyone does have evidence to support these claims, they should present it. If not, I suggest we stop bringing it up, whether online, during press conferences or anywhere else. Hurling baseless accusations at Williams (or anyone) is not ever going to be helpful in bringing necessary change to the local government or to the rest of our community.

CORRECTION (9/21/21): This article originally stated that Maddox had never filed an open records request before as part of her work as auditor. This was incorrect — she filed one in July 2018 in the course of auditing the Sheriff’s office. The Sheriff’s Office is technically a separate government entity from the unified government, so if they were resisting, there would have been no other way for Maddox to obtain information from them.

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