The Georgia Supreme Court has declined to hear Pendergrass' appeal of the "whistleblower" lawsuit, a move that now forces the small town to pay over $1.2 million to two former city employees or their estates
City manager Rob Russell said this week that the town's lawyers are negotiating the details of the payments. He said the town wants to pay off the judgement quickly, over four or five years, due to the high interest rate involved.
Russell said growth coming to the town will help pay for the debt and that city officials don't plan to raise the millage rate to cover the payments.
The payments come after years of litigation and controversy. Earlier this year, Rep. Tommy Benton attempted to have the town abolished in part due to the fallout from the lawsuits.
Last year, Pendergrass lost an appeal to the state Appeals Court over a 2017 jury verdict that ordered the town to pay the judgement. The city then appealed to the state supreme court.
Pendergrass city clerk Katherine Rintoul and city policeman Bill Garner first sued the city in 2009 in federal court. They lost that round, but subsequently filed suit in superior court in 2011 alleging that the city had violated the state’s Whistleblower Act. Rintoul was fired in what the city said was a financial crisis layoff in 2009 while Garner resigned later that year under what he said were hostile working conditions. (Garner died last year.)
Before they were fired or resigned, both Rintoul and Garner, along with another police officer, complained to Pendergrass Mayor Monk Tolbert in July 2009 about the misuse of city funds and allegations that Russell had been “fixing” city traffic tickets.
But instead of backing the whistleblowers, Tolbert backed Russell and fired Rintoul and four other city employees in what was portrayed at the time as a layoff for financial reasons.
The whistleblowers then went public with their allegations, which hit like a bombshell and got extensive media coverage throughout the state.
In October 2009, a group of Pendergrass citizens attempted to recall the Pendergrass City Council, but that effort failed following a court hearing at which the judge refused to let it proceed.
In another court action at that time, Pendergrass city officials settled a lawsuit filed by The Jackson Herald over allegations the city council was holding secret, illegal meetings. The city agreed to a decree that it would not hold any illegal meetings and would follow state open meetings laws.
Meanwhile, the GBI and other agencies were called in to investigate the allegations, but no charges were ever filed against city employees by the district attorney’s office.
In November, 2017, a 14-member Jackson County Superior Court jury, after nine days of court action, found that Pendergrass had violated the Georgia Whistleblower Act. Rintoul was awarded $218,000 in lost wages and $300,000 in damages by the jury while Garner was awarded $175,000 in lost wages and $372,600 in damages.
In 2018, the judge ordered Pendergrass to pay an additional $156,600 in attorney fees to the plaintiffs.