Unrest in Demorest: Controversy continues to plague neighboring Habersham County community of Demorest as local college lobbies for removal of Mayor.
By Joy Purcell, Now Habersham
Aug. 15, 2020
Piedmont College has sent a demand letter to the City of Demorest in what appears to be a legal attempt to oust Mayor Rick Austin from office and remove him from his tenured position as a biology professor at the private, four-year liberal arts college.
The nine-page letter, dated August 7, 2020, was sent by Newnan attorney Patrick McKee on behalf of the college. It names eight potential defendants including the City of Demorest, Mayor Austin, councilmen Sean Moore, Nathan Davis, and John Hendrix, as well as City Treasurer Joely Mixon, City Clerk Kim Simonds, and City Attorney Joey Homans.
The letter alleges at least five causes of action, claiming the city and its officials violated the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause and engaged in fraud and racketeering. The college also accuses Austin of conflict of interest and breach of contract.
In the letter, McKee states that “We are providing you with this notice to allow the City and its officials an opportunity to resolve these claims without incurring the time and expense of litigation.” He gave the named parties thirty days from receipt of the letter to resolve the claims to the college’s “satisfaction.” If the demands outlined in the letter are not met by that time, “we reluctantly will pursue whatever legal remedies are available.”
Allegations date back to 2018, reveal tangled web
The allegations date back to 2018 when the college claims Demorest Police Chief Robin Krockum “harassed and threatened” Piedmont College police officers in a supposed attempt to force Piedmont to disband its campus police “in favor of contracting with the City Police for its security needs.” McKee’s letter claims it was attempted “extortion” to gain “property rights of the college in the forms of tickets, fines, and contractual fees.”
McKee also asserts that the city “extorted” money from Piedmont College by devising a “targeted fraudulent water and sewage rate scheme” which resulted in an “unreasonable hike” in water and sewage rates at the college.
The rate increase was voted on and approved by the Demorest City Council on December 18, 2018. The day before, City Engineer Ben Turnipseed sent a letter to the council and then city manager Kristi Williams stating a rate increase was “justified” because of the volume of work and expanse of water line the city had to maintain for the college. Although Williams recommended a rate increase to cover the city’s budget shortfall, she is not named as a party in the threatened litigation.
Williams left her job with the city in 2019. After she did, her boyfriend sued and settled with Austin on an unrelated business matter and she returned to work at Piedmont College where she now serves as Controller.
Most of the grievances in the letter are aimed at Austin and his alleged “bias” against the college where he has been employed since 1997. In an affidavit filed last year in a former colleague’s lawsuit against the college, Austin accused Piedmont College President Dr. James Mellichamp of sexually harassing and assaulting him. (That wrongful termination suit brought by Dr. Robert Wainberg is still pending in federal court.)
Despite the various claims of extortion, fraud, and financial damages, the college is not seeking restitution nor any other remedy except Austin’s removal as mayor and termination of his tenured employment at Piedmont College.
It’s those specific demands that have some speculating the threatened lawsuit stems from personal vendettas more than any real violations of the law. “I’ve never seen a demand against a local government that included a demand against someone’s employment contract,” says Homans. “And I’ve been working with local governments now for twenty-five years.”
“It’s squarely centered on me being mayor and me being employed,” Austin says. Beyond that, he says “I have no comment at this point regarding the potential litigation.”
Questions but few answers
Because he’s named as a possible defendant, Homans is unable to represent the city in this matter. The city’s insurance company will assign legal counsel and “provide protection at least for the mayor and council members and probably Kim [Simonds] for some of the claims,” he says.
Lamenting the fact that college representatives never “walked across the street” to discuss the matters prior to threatening a lawsuit, Homans says he has a hard time believing that the college board of trustees is fully behind this. “There are a lot of respectable people on the Piedmont College Board of Trustees.” Now Habersham reached out to one board member who referred us back to Dr. Mellichamp.
Now Habersham reached out to both McKee and Mellichamp with the following eleven questions pertaining to the demand letter and this article:
The demand letter focuses at length on water/sewer rates, and yet the only demands in this letter regard the removal of Mr. Austin in both his elected and professional capacities. Why are those the only demands?
Mr. McKee, is it customary to tie one’s personal employment status to this type of action, as in the case of Dr. Austin?
Did the college and/or its assigned representatives participate in any of the public hearings regarding the proposed water/sewer rate schedule before it was adopted on December 18, 2018?
The college has been paying these rates now for 20 months. Prior to this demand letter being sent, did the college and/or its assigned representatives ever formally appeal, engage in, or attempt to engage in meetings with city officials to discuss concerns about the rate increase? If so, when? If not, why not?
As to the other causes of action outlined in the letter, did the college and/or its assigned representatives attempt to remedy them with the named parties prior to sending the letter?
Since the named parties were all employed and working with the City of Demorest at the time that the sewer/rate hike was considered, discussed and approved, why is former City Manager, Kristi Williams, not included as a party to this action?
Is Ms. Williams in any way associated with or assisting the college in this matter either in her role as former Demorest city manager or current role as Controller at Piedmont College?
Is the group, Concerned Citizens of Demorest, in any way associated with or assisting the college in this matter?
Dr. Mellichamp, is the demand for Mr. Austin’s termination in any way connected to his testimony in the Wainberg case? Would you care to address those allegations?
Was the entire board of trustees at Piedmont College notified of this action prior to the demand letter being sent?
Is there anything either of you would like to add beyond what is stated in your letter?
On Saturday, August 15, McKee replied by email. He did not address any of the specific questions but did offer this statement:
“Piedmont College regrets the necessity to demand resolution of the problems caused by the City as related in our letter. It is our hope that all of these problems will be resolved amicably and responsibly by the City. However, the College leaders have an obligation to protect the College from the concerns raised in our letter, and they take that obligation seriously. Beyond this statement and the letter which we believe adequately explains our position, the College has no further comment.”
Mellichamp has been an especially strong vocal critic of the mayor and city in recent months, writing letters to the editor and attending meetings. Another group highly critical of the mayor and Homans is Concerned Citizens of Demorest (CCD).
When CCD dropped its recent recall effort against the mayor, Now Habersham asked why. At the time, CCD Secretary Terry Benischek refused to comment. On Friday, she followed up with this statement:
“Deborah Showalter [president of CCD] and the officers met telephonically today and we are able to now share our explanation as to why we did not go forward with the Recall Application of Mayor Rick Austin. The Showalters are still in quarantine.
In order to meet the requirements of the Recall Application, we had a team of residents who were collecting signatures in the safest manner we knew and believed we would just make it by the deadline of 8/11/2020. However, on Monday 8/10/2020 it was discovered that a Letter of Intent was served on the City of Demorest, and based on the contents of the impending lawsuit, our recall request for the Mayor would have been redundant as the issue for the recall would be handled.
At this point, we made a decision to cease collecting signatures based on the pandemic and further risk the safety of our membership volunteers. (We have several residents who tested positive for the virus). Risking contracting the virus became a major issue and as I said it would have not been necessary.”
How CCD knew about the letter on Monday remains a point of interest, given that’s the day it was received. Pursuant to open records requests, the city released the letter to the media on Friday.
Based on the timeline outlined in the letter, the city will have to issue a response by early September. If the matter does go to court, there is a chance that members of the college’s board of trustees could be called upon to testify.
This article has been updated to reflect the business lawsuit filed against Austin was settled. Comments received after publication from Piedmont College attorney Patrick McKee have also been added.
Now Habersham article series on 2020 Demorest unrest: