The Chatham County Commission on Friday authorized Chairman Chester Ellis and County Attorney Jonathan Hart to negotiate a mutual severance agreement with County Manager Lee Smith, who has been on paid leave for the last three weeks.
Smith's initial suspension letter was delivered on July 21. Nothing about Smith's status has changed, only that Ellis and Hart can now negotiate a severance package with Smith's lawyers.
Following an executive session of the commission on Friday, Ellis declined answer questions regarding Smith's suspension, but delivered the following statement:
"After discussion with the Chatham County Board of Commissioners and the county attorney concerning County Manager Lee Smith, the Chatham County Board of Commissioners is authorizing the county attorney and the chairman to proceed with what we believe will be, a mutual severance agreement between Mr. Smith and the Chatham County government," Ellis's statement read.
Chatham County manager's attorney : Chatham County Manager Lee Smith's lawyer: 'He's never been told why he's on suspension'
As of August 10, the county manager has yet to be told why he was suspended, according to the lawyer representing Smith.
“I think he’s done a good job for the county, due to the fact he’s been there for eight years. It shows,” said Brent Savage Sr., of Savannah-based Savage Turner Pinckney Savage & Sprouse law firm.
The county has denied two records requests for Smith's personnel file, communications and others documents made under the Georgia Open Records Act since Smith's suspension was first reported.
"The documents you have requested are currently part of an investigation and are unable to be reproduced until an action has been decided," an email from Hart dated July 26 read in part.
However, the county responded to an Aug. 10 records request for "Any and all investigations involving County Manager Lee Smith from Juiy 1, 2022 to August 10, 2022" with the following statement: "The county is not in possession of any documents responsive to your request."
The response calls into question whether Smith was ever under investigation, despite the email from Hart and the initial suspension letter from Ellis that suggested a probe involving Smith. In that letter, Ellis wrote:
"Due to the recent chain of events, I find it necessary to begin an investigation into leadership activities which may negatively impact the Chatham County," Ellis' letter read.
Asked Wednesday whether Smith was still under investigation, Assistant Chatham County Attorney Andre Pretorious said “the board is still in discussions, and we await further directions from the board.” The board referenced is the Chatham Commission.
Were the commission to consider firing Smith, Chatham County code requires a two-thirds vote, or six of the nine members in favor. However, the commission must adopt a preliminary resolution stating the reasons for removal. This preliminary resolution must also pass by more than two-thirds vote.
Will Peebles is the City Council and County Commission reporter for Savannah Morning News, covering local Savannah and Chatham County decisions. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @willpeeblesSMN
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Chatham County Manager Lee Smith is negotiating severance package