The Stephanie Maddox saga: A timeline

ACC Auditor Stephanie Maddox
Former ACC Internal Auditor Stephanie Maddox

Stephanie Maddox held the position of Internal Auditor of Athens-Clarke County for over six years. She was the subject of complaints from her employees and other co-workers for nearly all of that time. For the past two years, she has been the center of a major controversy. This controversy became public only recently when she held a press conference with the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement. During this event, she accused Mayor Kelly Girtz and Manager Blaine Williams of discrimination and intimidation in their response to an open records request she filed in 2018.

With Maddox’s firing last week, this saga appears to have come to a close for now. However, her supporters continue to speak out in op-eds and over social media. 

Just before Maddox’s employment was terminated, AADM co-founder Mokah Jasmine Johnson wrote an op-ed for the Flagpole where she spoke of an “abuse of authority” by Williams and an “unhealthy work environment within the ACC government” which has been directed at Maddox. Johnson claimed that the commission “still refuses to acknowledge these harms and to seek a just and fair resolution.”

Throughout this controversy, the mayor and commission have indeed remained silent, at least publicly. They have yet to explain their actions or present the local government’s side of this story. 

In this article, APN will examine the full timeline of Maddox’s employment as ACC Internal Auditor using documents obtained through various open records requests. By examining this information, it’s my hope that the public may be allowed a more complete understanding of what went wrong during Maddox’s tenure.

Maddox says she has been deeply affected by the issues that led to her discrimination complaint, both mentally and emotionally. Furthermore, she has been dealing with a number of serious physical and mental health issues that led to her requesting family and medical leave and accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2020. While she has been open about her health struggles, this article does not mention them beyond this note. I bring them up only because it may help readers interpret the events described below. I also hope to encourage sympathy in readers who may not otherwise be inclined to feel sympathetic to her side of this story.

Table of contents

Timeline of Maddox’s employment

2015

April 20, 2015: Stephanie Maddox announced as sole finalist for the position of Internal Auditor of Athens-Clarke County. She is officially hired shortly after.

September 14, 2015: Maddox hires Leigh Hodges as an analyst. Hodges would later complain about Maddox’s poor management skills to Commissioner Allison Wright, chair of the Audit Committee. Wright advises her to seek help from ACC Human Resources.

2016

July 2016: Maddox completes an audit of the ACC Leisure Services Summer Camp program.

August 2016: Hodges quits her job and transfers to the Tax Commissioner’s Office, taking a significant pay cut in the process.

December 2016: Wright steps down from her role as chair of the Audit Committee because of a personality conflict and a growing frustration with Maddox’s work performance. Also this month, Maddox completes an audit of all Boards, Authorities and Commissions.

2017

June 6, 2017: Maddox is reappointed for a two-year term by a vote of 7-2, with Wright and Commissioner Jerry NeSmith voting no. This was unusual; commissioners rarely vote no on reappointing any charter officer.

2018

January 2018: The ACC Commission assigns Maddox’s yearly work plan. It includes an audit of the ACC Fleet Management Division.

October 2018: Jill Arquette, one of Maddox’s employees, complains to ACC Human Resources about a hostile work environment in her office. However, HR is unable to take any action because the auditor is an appointed position who reports only to the mayor and commission. Later this year, Arquette would take her complaints about Maddox to Mayor-Elect Girtz, who would soon become Maddox’s supervisor.

October 29, 2018: Maddox files an open records request for a large number of documents related to the local government’s 2018 wage study.

October 31, 2018: ACC Manager Blaine Williams and Assistant Manager Jestin Johnson meet with Maddox to discuss her open records request. The conversation becomes heated as Williams questions her intensely. Williams would later refer to this as a “difficult conversation.” Maddox was profoundly impacted by it, feeling that Williams was trying to intimidate her into dropping her request. 

November 2, 2018: Maddox cancels her open records request.

November 8, 2018: Maddox asks again, this time informally, for information pertaining to the 2018 wage study.

November 30, 2018: Maddox receives many of the documents she requested from ACC Human Resources staff.

2019

January 4, 2019: After some back-and-forth, Director of ACC Human Resources Jeff Hale offers to sit down with Maddox to answer any remaining questions she may have about the 2018 wage study. Maddox declines his offer.

January 8, 2019: Girtz is sworn-in as Mayor of Athens-Clarke County and continues to hear complaints from Maddox’s employees. Later this month, Girtz meets with Maddox for the first time as mayor and gives a negative evaluation of her work.

February 21, 2019: Girtz meets with Maddox again to discuss her performance. He also expresses his concerns to her in writing and suggests an office development work plan.

May 2019: Maddox’s Office of Operational Analysis holds a retreat to work out their ongoing issues as requested by Girtz. However, it is cancelled halfway through because one of Maddox’s two employees is sick with a hacking cough. It is never rescheduled.

May 30, 2019: Debbie Allen, one of Maddox’s employees, complains to Girtz of a hostile work environment.

June 4, 2019: Maddox is reappointed unanimously for another two-year term (Wright was absent for this vote).

June 10, 2019: Girtz disciplines Maddox, placing her on a performance improvement plan. He requests that Maddox remain present in the office during normal business hours, hold weekly office meetings as a way of reducing last-minute requests and thus evening work hours for her staff and to reschedule the office retreat. Maddox refuses to sign the paperwork.

August 6, 2019: Maddox completes an audit of the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office.

September 2019: Maddox requests a pay increase beyond the standard 2% she received this year, but is denied.

October 2019: Due to public outrage over the unnecessary euthanization of 32 cats and kittens, the ACC Commission modifies Maddox’s yearly work plan to include an audit of the Animal Services Department.

December 2019: Allen quits her job in Maddox’s office, complaining of a hostile work environment. Maddox never re-hires to fill this open position.

2020

Early 2020: Maddox completes an audit of the ACC Water Business Office.

February 7, 2020: Maddox emails her grievances to ACC Human Resources, saying that she has suffered discrimination and intimidation.

March 3, 2020: Maddox files a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), citing discrimination based on race, sex, age and disability. Later that day, the commission agrees to have an independent investigator look into these complaints. They hire attorney Karen Woodward to perform the investigation.

April 16, 2020: Maddox tells the Audit Committee that she will complete her audit of Fleet Management, first assigned in January 2018, within 30 days. At the same meeting, Arquette tells the committee that the audit of Animal Services would be complete in June. However, Arquette would soon transfer to Human Resources, leaving Maddox without any full-time employees. Maddox never re-hires to fill this open position. In contrast to Arquette, interns working in Maddox’s office in the summer of 2020 report a positive experience.

May 13, 2020: Maddox tells the Audit Committee that her audit of Fleet Management would be completed by early May / end of June and that Animal Services would be complete in July.

June 17, 2020: Maddox completes an addendum to the Clarke County Sheriff’s audit regarding inmate healthcare. Maddox tells the Audit Committee that her audits of Fleet Management and Animal Services would be completed by the end of July.

July 13, 2020: Maddox tells the Audit Committee that her audits of Fleet Management and Animal Services were still on track to be completed by the end of the month.

August 12, 2020: Maddox tells the Audit Committee that her audit of Fleet Management would be complete within two weeks and that Animal Services would be complete by the end of the week.

September 17, 2020: Maddox tells the Audit Committee that her audits of Fleet Management and Animal Services would be complete within a week.

October 14, 2020: The commission’s Audit Committee hears a recommendation from the 2020 Overview Commission that their committee should be restructured to provide enhanced oversight of the auditor’s office and to improve its performance.

November 23, 2020: Woodward’s report is finalized and submitted to the mayor and commission. It found no evidence of discrimination against Maddox. Likewise, the EEOC dismissed Maddox’s complaint.

November 30, 2020: Maddox tells the Audit Committee that her audits of Fleet Management and Animal Services would be complete in December.

2021

January 27, 2021: Maddox tells the Audit Committee that her audits of Fleet Management and Animal Services would be complete within a week.

February 10, 2021: Maddox tells the Audit Committee that her audits of Fleet Management and Animal Services would be complete by the end of the month.

March 10, 2021: At Girtz’s request, the commission’s Audit Committee votes to recommend restructuring of their committee along the lines presented by the 2020 Overview Commission. This motion passes in a 4-1 vote, with Wright voting no. They suggest that the Government Operations Committee is the most appropriate body to come up with a plan for the restructuring. Also at this meeting, Maddox tells the committee that her work plan “is in the home stretch,” but the committee decides not to meet again until the Fleet Management and Animal Control audits are complete.

May 2021: Maddox files a discrimination complaint with the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement.

June 8, 2021: UGA researcher Joseph Carter sends a letter to District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez asking her to criminally investigate Girtz and Williams for interference with Maddox’s 2018 open records request. Later this day, Maddox holds a press conference where she accuses Girtz and Williams of discrimination and intimidation.

June 15, 2021: Maddox is reappointed for a two-year term by a vote of 9-1, with Wright voting no.

June 16, 2021: Girtz places Maddox on a second work improvement plan as a condition of her reappointment. This plan includes a requirement for monthly check-in meetings, including one to be scheduled on September 21.

August 4, 2021: Maddox turns in a completed draft of her Animal Control audit and a draft of the Fleet Management audit that has one section missing.

August 10, 2021: The Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia dismisses Carter’s call to criminally investigate Girtz and Williams, saying it would be impossible to prove.

September 21, 2021: Maddox fails to meet with the commission for her monthly check-in meeting as required in her performance improvement plan.

September 24, 2021: The commission terminates Maddox’s employment in a unanimous 8-0 vote, with Commissioners Mike Hamby and Ovita Thornton absent. A majority vote was all that was needed, according to the ACC Charter. Maddox’s termination letter.

Maddox’s grievances

Maddox listed the following grievances (among others) in her original discrimination complaint made to human resources on February 7, 2020:

  • Harassment
  • Verbal assault
  • A work improvement plan given without supporting documentation or measurable goals
  • Retaliation
  • A stagnant salary
  • Efforts to reduce the authority of her position
  • A broken chain of command
  • Unnecessary monitoring by the Manager’s Office

A month later when Maddox made her complaint to the EEOC, she listed similar complaints, adding only that Williams withheld information from her about the 2018 pay study. 

I’ve already covered the alleged withholding of information here. Let’s go over the others now:

Harassment and verbal assault

ACC Manager Blaine Williams
ACC Manager Blaine Williams

In her discrimination complaint, Maddox says she has been harassed by Williams since 2016. When she filed her open records request in October 2018, she says Williams yelled at her and threatened her job in a way she describes as “venomous.” On another occasion which she described at her press conference, Maddox says Williams threatened her as they passed each other in the hallway. She says he told her, “you’re not going to do what you want to do to take me down, and I’ve got something for you!” as he pushed her back against the wall.

The first of these claims is too vague to analyze in a way that would be meaningful. Subtle harassment can be corrosive if it happens over a long period of time, but there is no evidence we can look to beyond Maddox’s testimony itself. Similarly, the last incident mentioned above happened without any witnesses present. Only the second incident happened in the presence of others and is specific enough to analyze.

Jestin Johnson
Former ACC Assistant Manager Jestin Johnson

When Williams met with Maddox with the apparent goal of convincing her to drop her October 2018 open records request, he was joined by Assistant Manager Jestin Johnson. There was also one other person who was a witness to this conversation; Maddox’s intern Daniel Jones, who sat right across the hall from her.

According to the Woodward investigation, neither Johnson nor Jones remember hearing any yelling during that conversation. Johnson recalls a “direct conversation” in which Maddox and Williams talked through their issues and agreed to disagree. While Williams does admit to raising his voice, the evidence presented in the Woodward report indicates it was far from the “verbal assault” claimed by Maddox.

At the time of the investigation, Johnson was no longer working for Williams; he had accepted a job with the city of Atlanta.

Discipline without documentation or measurable goals

Mayor Kelly Girtz
Mayor Kelly Girtz

Maddox refused to sign the performance improvement plan given to her by Girtz in June 2019. She said that the disciplinary action was “based on a one-sided investigation” and suggested that “the decision to terminate my employment has already been made and that any subsequent disciplinary action has been predetermined.”

This is clearly untrue. Maddox had just been reappointed for a two-year term, which she served in-full. She would even be reappointed for another two-year term, although this final term was cut short. If anything, her employment history reveals the opposite of what Maddox claimed; the mayor and commission seemed to be trying to work with her despite significant issues in her office with employee morale and productivity.

In her February 7, 2020 letter to HR, Maddox claimed that Girtz had no documentation to support the disciplinary action he issued against her. She claimed that he failed to provide her with an action plan for how to improve. Both of these claims are false.

Girtz was critical of Maddox’s work in their first meeting after Girtz became mayor. While this meeting may not have been documented, Girtz sent an office development work plan to Maddox in writing on February 21, 2019.

This plan provided several goals to help Maddox on the road to improvement, including executive coaching and holding an office retreat. It’s only when Maddox failed to carry out the office development plan that Girtz took disciplinary action. Furthermore, the goals of the performance improvement plan were clearly listed on the document itself. They included the need to remain present in the office during normal business hours, to hold weekly office meetings and to complete an office retreat.

A stagnant salary

Maddox complained of a stagnant salary in her February 2020 letter to HR and again in her allegation of discrimination to the EEOC. She said that “no reason was given for the denial of pay increase” which she had requested the year before. 

She seems unable to accept the implications of Girtz’s disciplinary action in 2019, which was still on her record. Clearly, employees with a record of poor performance are unlikely to receive performance-related pay increases. She did, however, receive the standard 2% raise given to all managers that year, according to the Woodward report.

Undermining her authority and a broken chain of command

Maddox feels that her authority as auditor has been undermined in numerous ways, including by William’s resistance to her October 2018 open records request, his unnecessary monitoring (explained below) and by Girtz responding to her employees’ complaints, thereby breaking the chain of command.

According to the ACC Code of Ordinances, the internal auditor is responsible for “a continuing internal audit of the fiscal affairs and programmatic operations of every department, office and agency of the Athens-Clarke County Government as affects the efficiency and effectiveness of departments and agencies.” It also says that she “works in consultation with the mayor and commissioners and manager to develop objective and plan assignments.”

In practice, the commission’s Audit Committee decides the auditor’s yearly work plan, which must be approved by the full commission. While the auditor is allowed to research potential audits to complement the work plan, she should do so in consultation with the mayor, manager and commission. This did not happen in the case of the 2018 wage study. Commissioner Melissa Link, who was on the audit committee at that time and is now the chair, does not recall ever seriously discussing an audit of the study.

During her discussion with Williams about her open records request, Maddox offered to pay for the study out of her own pocket. This is perhaps an admission that the request was not fully related to her work as auditor, as she would later claim.

Maddox’s supporters are currently calling for the internal auditor to become an elected position as a way of ensuring its full independence from the manager’s office and even the mayor and commission. Regardless of your opinion on this suggestion, it’s important to note that during the time period in question, the auditor worked for the mayor and commission in consultation with management. She did not have full independence to investigate in depth whatever topic she wished as a part of her job, according to the ACC Code of Ordinances.

Maddox also claimed that Girtz broke the chain of command by responding to Maddox’s employees’ cries for help directly, rather than referring them back to her. Yet, her employees had already brought their complaints to Maddox and even reached out to HR for help. HR was unable to help because of Maddox’s position as a charter officer; she essentially outranks them. 

This meant Girtz was the only government official capable of responding to the complaints of Maddox’s employees. As stated in the Woodward report, since they were complaining about their supervisor, “it is appropriate for the supervisor’s supervisor to entertain the complaints.”

Unnecessary monitoring

Williams has a habit of attending audit committee meetings either personally or through a representative such as an assistant manager. Maddox interpreted this as a means of intimidation. Indeed, Williams would occasionally speak up during audit committee meetings to contradict Maddox or provide more information for commissioners, despite attending as a guest and not a committee member.

In Williams’ defense, as long as he is recognized to speak by the chair of the committee, there is nothing improper about this. In fact, his knowledge about the departments under audit may be quite valuable for commissioners who lack this knowledge. 

Maddox nevertheless felt that Williams was undermining her authority as a charter officer. Williams was Maddox’s coworker; it’s true that he was not her boss. During an audit committee meeting, Maddox asked him not to sit around the table like other meeting participants; instead, she asked him to sit next to the wall with the other visitors. This is reasonable given his status as a visitor at these meetings, and he complied.

In summary, this complaint of Maddox’s appears to have at least some merit. While audit committee meetings continued to be attended by representatives of the Manager’s Office, their presence was useful to commissioners. She was able to resolve the other aspects of this complaint on her own by invoking the authority of her office. However, it’s possible that Williams did resent her authority in a way that was at least in part charged by unconscious bias against her race or gender.

The grievances of Maddox’s employees

Maddox’s employees had their own list of grievances which they tried to have addressed before they ended up leaving their jobs. According to the Woodward investigation, her employees said that Maddox:

  • Spent very little time in the office.
  • Belittled employees.
  • Always blamed others for mistakes and delays.
  • Was more concerned with formatting than content. For example, she criticized her employees for using any font other than 12 point Times New Roman, even in emails.
  • Often made last-minute requests that caused employees to work late.
  • Denied her employees time off in an unreasonable way (unless they did personal tasks for her).
  • Was extremely disorganized in a way that caused extra work for her employees.
  • Gave one employee out-of-class responsibilities with no training and dismissed her request for additional training. She even refused to allow this employee to seek out additional training by taking classes at UGA.

The employees made these complaints to Woodward during her investigation. According to her report, all of Maddox’s employees had similar complaints with the exception of the interns staffing her office during the summer of 2020.

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