More details about the controversial hiring of a former Rockdale County Public Affairs director were revealed in the judge's report for a federal discrimination filed by former county Deputy Public Affairs Director Holly Lafontaine against the county and Rockdale County Commission Chairman Richard Oden that was dismissed as of Feb. 24.
In a statement released by the county, Oden said "We are pleased with the judge’s ruling and are now ready to move forward beyond this issue."
Lafontaine told the News, “Even though the judge dismissed the case, I hope people will not dismiss the truth of what I’m saying.”
“I still feel like his decisions weren’t based on merit, but appealing it is not worth it at this time.”
In the settlement agreement, the county's agent for insurance, the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, which handled the case for the county, will reportedly pay Lafontaine $5,000.
She said the settlement amount will basically cover her attorney’s bills. “I walk away with nothing monetarily,” she said.
“It was hard. It was stressful. It was expensive. But if I’ve protected even one person from their being treated the way I was, it was worth it,” she said.
Lafontaine, who is white, filed the case in 2010 after being passed over for the position of Public Affairs Director. Oden, who is black, chose Erica Fatima, who is black, for the position. The Board of Commissioners approved the appointment in a 2-1 vote, with Commissioner JaNice Van Ness voting against. The deputy director position and one other public affairs person in the four-person department was cut at the end of June 2010 as a part of budget cuts that eliminated about 30 positions altogether.
In the search for the Public Affairs Director, Lafontine was one of the three finalists. She had been the acting director for nine months, after former director Julie Mills was let go, and had been the department's deputy director for about eight years before that. She had worked with the county for about 15 years total.
The position went to Fatima, who had been the deputy press secretary with the Georgia Department of Transportation for about two years.
The third finalist was Alysa King, who is also black and had worked in the press office of former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.
According to the final report and recommendation by Judge Clayton Scofield, III, Oden had concerns about Lafontaine’s past performance, especially regarding two particular issues.
In August 2009, Clerk of Courts Ruth Wilson asked Lafontaine to create a website for the Clerk of Courts office that was similar to the Clayton County Clerk of Courts website. Lafontaine testified that Wilson “said put this on the web site exactly like this.”
The website created reportedly had text that referred to Clayton County and links that went to Clayton County forms.
According to the report, "The Chief Judge... sent a letter to Chairman Oden informing him that the mistake was extremely embarrassing."
Oden also was reportedly dissatisfied with a November 2009 article about Rockdale “going forward and its new direction” in the Atlanta Tribune Magazine that showed pictures of the Veterans Memorial at Black Shoals Park, the covered bridge, the county Courthouse, and a tree line. According to the report and depositions, Oden felt the
Lafontaine alleged irregularities with the director selection process.
According to the judge’s report, on an interview panel of five people, three of the interviewers gave Lafontaine the highest marks. Two of the interviewers gave Fatima the highest marks. However, Oden reportedly conducted his interviews of the finalists without knowing the panel's evaluations.
The judge’s report found that the reasons Oden gave for favoring Fatima were “consistent and has always centered on the same theme - that Ms. Fatima would better advance the direction and image Chairman Oden envisioned for the county, whereas (Lafontaine) did not.”
“Chairman Oden found Ms. Fatima’s vision ‘blended in with [his] thoughts… In other words, he felt a great chemistry with her.”
Oden also reportedly cited Fatima having a more professional appearance and having a DVD resume. Lafontaine alleged that Oden did not view the DVD resume.
The judge’s report continued, “The fact that Chairman Oden was impressed by Ms. Fatima’s DVD even though he failed to watch the DVD does not indicate or prove racial bias.
“It may show questionable judgment, but this court is ‘not in the business of adjudging whether employment decisions are prudent or fair.’”
When the question of appointing Fatima was brought to the Board of Commissioners, Commissioner JaNice Van Ness pointed out that Fatima previously had trouble paying the bills for her son’s enrollment in the private school Van Ness owns and operates.
Van Ness found that Fatima had a “no hire” designation in her personnel file at the Rockdale county Public School system and that a phone number listed as a reference on Fatima’s resume went back to Fatima’s own desk.
Also among the charges was that Lafontaine's position was cut after her attorney sent letters alleging discrimination.
However, after depositions from County Clerk Jennifer Rutledge, County Chief of Staff Greg Pridgeon, and other staff including Oden’s executive assistant, the judge concluded there was no evidence that the Board of Commissioners knew about the attorney’s letters or discrimination case before they decided to cut the position of Public Affairs deputy director.
Fatima recently resigned as Public Affairs director as of October 2011. Tonya Parker was selected in January 2012 as the new Public Affairs director. Lafontaine is currently working in the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office.