Chatham County spends $87K on MPC investigation

Published: Aug. 16, 2022 at 2:49 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 16, 2022 at 6:16 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - While severance negotiations are underway for Chatham County Manager Lee Smith, WTOC investigates has learned of an investigation involving another governmental entity with ties to Smith and Chatham County.

Copies of county invoices show Chatham County taxpayers spent nearly $87,000 for an internal investigation led by a private law firm into allegations of a hostile work environment at the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission.

Although the investigation happened earlier this year and the report was published in April, WTOC Investigates has learned concerns about the report have become a recent topic of discussion by the MPC board during its closed-door executive sessions.

It’s unclear which county employee authorized the request for services from the private law firm. WTOC Investigates asked for a copy of the request for services, but Chatham County Attorney Jonathan Hart said that information is being withheld from the public because it’s considered attorney-client privilege.

Smith has a voting position on the MPC board because of his position with the county. The MPC makes decisions about zoning petitions in Savannah and Chatham County.

Since late July, he’s been on paid suspension for undisclosed reasons and is negotiating a severance package with Chatham County Commissioners. It’s unclear if his role with the MPC has anything to do with his suspension.

The county has not given a reason for Smith’s suspension and when reached for comment Smith’s attorney Brent Savage Sr. said he does not believe the MPC investigation has anything to do with Smith.

MPC board members met behind closed doors on Friday during a special executive session over concerns about the MPC investigation, said MPC Chairman Joe Welch. He declined to provide any details about what was discussed citing executive session privileges, but he did say no public vote was taken at the meeting.

The MPC board was expected to meet today during its regularly scheduled meeting.

Allegations of ‘hostile work environment’

The MPC investigation began after someone sent an anonymous complaint in September to Chairman Welch, according to a copy of the MPC investigation report.

The complaint outlined several allegations about a hostile work environment under the MPC’s executive director Melanie Wilson.

In November, Chatham County hired the Atlanta-based law firm Nelson Mullins to investigate those claims, according to the report.

The nearly two-month investigation included interviews with Wilson, four board members and more than two dozen current and former employees,

The investigator did not substantiate claims about a hostile work environment but did find there is low staff morale at the MPC, distrust of executive leadership and communication issues involving Melanie Wilson and executive leadership, according to the report.

Board members interviewed during the investigation said the morale issues at the MPC are long-standing and preceded Wilson who hired to be a “change agent” to bring order to an organization at risk of losing funding.

During Wilson’s interview with investigators, she denied allegations about her management style and said the allegations “absolutely” surprise her.

She also told investigators, “This process seems retaliatory to her.”

The law firm’s investigator was unable to substantiate many of the allegations, according to the report.

When asked about the investigation, Wilson said she had no comment about the investigation, but did say, “I maintain that that I am professional and that I provided opportunities for training and followed the wishes of the board with regard to policy changes and moving the agency forward.”

Response from MPC board chairman

WTOC was the only media outlet in an almost 7-hour-long MPC meeting on Tuesday.

MPC Chairman Joe Welch wouldn’t go into much detail or say whether the complaints were true or false.

“Of all that, the complaints to see where they’re valid or not...that’s not for me to determine,” Welch said.

An anonymous complaint was sent to Chairman Welch back in September. He told WTOC he learned of the complaints and investigation when the report was published in April.

“In light of the investigation, first and foremost, I want everybody to know especially our community who is our taxpayers in the City of Savannah and Chatham County that all of the commissioners here...we’re volunteers. We’re giving up our time. We don’t get paid. We’re here to do what’s best for our community.”

Chairman Welch confirmed conversations are happening internally to improve.

“Anytime you have bad publicity of a bad environment, you need to look into it. How do we make it better? How do we provide what’s needed for the staff or for our director to help her or staff to be better at what we do because that’s what taxpayers are paying for.”

Board members interviewed during the investigation said the morale issues at the MPC are long-standing, Chairman Welch sees it differently.

“Everything that we decide, we work together on it. We have a very, very, good commission here and we all are volunteers and take up our time to provide for the citizens.”

He said today’s meeting showed signs of them moving forward.

“Just like we did today. Here it is almost 7pm we start at 1:30 p.m., actually 12:30 p.m...we do our job.”

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