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Posted: August 9, 2014 10:00 p.m.

Landscaper’s lawsuit raises business license questions

Billy Durden’s lawsuits against the county are proceeding apace, and the deposition phase of his suit alleging unlawful termination from his contract to maintain county property has yielded some new evidence that makes him confident in ultimate victory.

Durden, who owned Durden’s Lawn Maintenance, worked as a contractor for the county for more than 10 years, operating on five-year contracts. The most recent was renewed by the Newton County Board of Commissioners on Feb. 5, 2013. But after the vote, the commissioners reversed themselves when then-County Manager John Middleton said Durden had no valid business license.

Durden in early 2014 filed a suit for breach of contract and a separate civil lawsuit against Middleton, County Commission Chairman Keith Ellis and Gary Campbell, the contractor who replaced him, for slander, libel, interfering with an employment contract and causing emotional distress, humiliation and the loss of earning capacity. He’s seeking more than $1 million in total damages.

The reason given at the Feb. 5, 2013, meeting was that Durden hadn’t paid his business license by Dec. 31, 2012. County business license applications clearly state that as the deadline for renewing licenses. But the same applications say a “citation will be issued if your business license is not renewed or closed by March 15th.”

County attorney W. Thomas Craig said Durden was fired “for cause,” meaning he was not owed (and not paid) the three-month severance his contract calls for if the county files him “for convenience.” Nor was he paid for the work he says he did in January and February 2013.

So, does a license still exist between Dec. 31 and March 15? Durden says yes, and open records he requested and received show that many other local businesses, including a few owned by county commissioners who voted against his contract, don’t pay their business licenses on time.

“If (a business license) truly expired on Dec. 31, they would shut you down on Jan. 1,” Durden said. “They don’t want to admit they screwed up.

“They ruined my life. They fired me for no reason. I’ve worked (for the county) for 12 years and we never had a problem, never had a complaint.”

Ellis has referred all questions to the county attorney, who is representing both him and Middleton in the suits. Campbell is represented by another attorney.

Georgia Attorney General director of communications Lauren Kane said Thursday that business licenses are the purview of local governments, not the state, which leaves the question at the local level.

Durden dismisses the county’s claims that he had no business license at all from 2002-2006 by pointing out that he paid a late fee of $595 to the county for the lapse. The check was cashed; he has that, too, in his voluminous files on the case.

He says paying a fee for not having a business license is like paying a speeding ticket; if the penalty is paid, you don’t lose your license to drive.

But he lost his business. Durden paid his 2012 business license renewal in February 2013, after the county pulled its vote to renew his contract and hire Campbell.

Campbell’s been involved in the controversy since 2007, when he submitted the low bid for county maintenance. At the time, Middleton rejected the bid (and Campbell filed a complaint), pointing out that the county chooses lawn-maintenance contracts on a point system so the lowest bid is not always the one chosen. Campbell and his G&G Landscape Management now maintain 20 sites throughout the city, totaling about 54 acres.

Legal fees for Durden’s case have already topped $96,000, according to open records he received from the county in 157 pages of attorney billing statements. If the county had paid him the five months he’s says he’s owed, the total would have been about $44,000.

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