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Shuler expected to earn severance pay

Gainesville council to decide on former city manager’s compensation

POSTED: December 15, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Gainesville officials say they have not decided whether their former city manager will receive a severance package, but his resignation letter shows Bryan Shuler certainly expected to receive one.

"I understand I will receive my compensation and benefits for the following six months as provided by my employment contract," Shuler wrote in his Nov. 13 letter to the City Council.

A draft of a letter written on behalf of Gainesville’s mayor promises a similar severance package, but Mayor Myrtle Figueras says she never saw that letter and an attorney advising the city says it was never sent to Shuler.

Council members will likely discuss and decide on Shuler’s severance Thursday morning, according to Councilman Danny Dunagan, but they have remained tight-lipped as to what, if any, pay the 11-year city employee will receive in the wake of his resignation.

Under the terms of his employment agreement, Shuler is not entitled to a severance if he resigned voluntarily. But the council could still decide to negotiate a package with Shuler, if it so chooses.

Severance pay policies for public administrators who leave their positions vary, but certain contractual language applies universally, according to employment attorneys and officials in other cities.

When Dalton’s City Administrator Butch Sanders resigned in July after 19 years, he was awarded 19 weeks of pay — one week for each year of service – said Greg Batts, the city’s Human Resources director.

Sanders resigned from his post with little notice in July to "work through a difficult personal situation as well as to pursue a new start in my career path," according to a report published in the Dalton Daily Citizen.

Shuler, like Sanders, resigned immediately from his Gainesville post on Nov. 13, citing a need to care for his "elderly parents in South Carolina who are in declining health."

Documents obtained through an Open Records Act request show Shuler was under investigation for allegations of sexual harassment. The former city manager had been on paid administrative leave for three days at the time of his resignation, according to those documents.

Sam Harben Jr., an expert in employment law, has been consulting the City Council since the allegations were made against Shuler in an anonymous letter.

Harben said Shuler currently is receiving pay for his unused vacation leave, but no one has informed the former city manager that he will receive severance or how much.

"The council has yet to decide on a final package," Harben said.

The council has likely been discussing Shuler’s severance in closed meetings since he resigned three weeks ago.

At both voting meetings since Shuler resigned, the council met behind closed doors for to discuss "personnel" and "possible litigation" for approximately an hour each time.

The council also discussed litigation behind closed doors at a Nov. 20 work session for more than 40 minutes, according to Judy Foster, the city clerk’s assistant.

A draft of the letter that was never sent to Shuler promises the former city manager that he will receive $5,185.60 every other week and another $600 each month for a vehicle allowance, and put money into his retirement fund until his six-month severance period ends on May 17.

The letter also pledges that at the end of his severance period, the city will give him a lump-sum payment for his remaining vacation leave, which is capped at 7« weeks.

The letter, which was written on Figueras’ behalf four days after Shuler’s resignation, was never sent, according to Harben.

Figueras also said she has never seen the letter. She maintains that the council has not come to a conclusion on Shuler’s severance.

"It has gone across our minds, but no decision has been made," Figueras said.

When Sanders resigned from his Dalton post in July, the city did not give him a vehicle allowance as part of his severance, Batts said.

"Vehicle allowance, in my opinion is for people that are doing city business," Batts said.

Shuler’s employment contract entitles him to six months pay and benefits if he is fired before the end of his term of employment.

Attorney Michael Caldwell, who has experience in public employment law as the general counsel for the Georgia Chiefs of Police but has no connection to this case, said if Shuler is entitled to severance, then his $600 per month vehicle allowance falls under the benefits that his employment agreement entitles him for the next six months.

Shuler’s employment agreement specifically states that he is not entitled to a severance package if he voluntarily resigns or is fired for wrongdoing, however.

But Harben says the City Council can override that agreement and give the 11-year city employee a severance package.

"The City Council certainly has the power to negotiate with him a reasonable compensation package that would differ from his contract," Harben said. "If both sides agree to it, then that would be, of course, legally acceptable."

Caldwell also said it’s possible that the council may have asked Shuler to resign, which may entitle him to a severance package. City officials, though, have said they had no knowledge that Shuler planned to resign before he did so.

"It’s an involuntary termination, which is being ... couched in the terms of a voluntary resignation," Caldwell said. "But the nature of the ... separation is what really determines what his contractual rights are, not what the parties call it," Caldwell said.

Dunagan and Harben maintain that is not what happened in Shuler’s case, however.

"He chose to resign," Harben said.



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