In a year in which Tift County officials celebrated the county’s 100th anniversary and tried to earn accolades for consolidating services with the City of Tifton, it was controversy and unanswered questions that captured the public’s attention.

The controversy surrounds former county human resources director Tracy St. Amant. Meanwhile, the unanswered questions sit in the lap of the Tift County commissioners.

St. Amant resigned from her job in April and signed a confidential severance agreement with county manager Bill Park. After hearing rumors of the agreement, the Tifton Gazette submitted Georgia Open Records requests in July to obtain St. Amant’s personnel file. Rather than handing over the documents, the county let the Tifton Circuit Superior Court decide. Months later, a judge’s decision finally allowed the personnel file to become public.

The file revealed that St. Amant received full pay from the time of her resignation until Sept. 30, although she was not required to report to work. Although she was retained as a consultant through June, the former human resources director was paid more than $25,000 for a time in which she was required to do little if any work.

The question then, and now, is “Why?”

According to commissioners, they were never fully familiar with the details of the severance agreement, which was arranged by Park and county attorney Rob Reinhardt. However Park said that he kept the board informed about the severance process. St. Amant has never commented on her parting with the county after less than three years on the job.

After repeated attempts by the Gazette to find the truth, the cause was championed by a former commissioner, Ronald Nixon. Nixon summed up the thoughts of many when he stood before the current commissioners and commented on the St. Amant severance.

“It just sounds a little stinky to me,” he said.

At two separate meetings of the county board, Nixon asked the board for an explanation of why St. Amant was paid more than $25,000, but the members never gave a full response to his questions. During one of the meetings, Commissioner Moody Huggins told Nixon that the board was willing to work with the public but would not easily give out information on its employees.

At the time of that October meeting, St. Amant was no longer an employee of the county.

In late October, the board issued a press release about the issue.

“We do recognize that some errors occurred in the creation of the resignation agreement due to poor communication of information critical to the process,” the release stated. “The Commission does still believe that it was in the county’s best interest to honor the agreement made with Ms. St. Amant. The parties responsible for failing to provide us with all the information pertinent to the decision making process have been clearly informed of all shortcomings. However, we must take our share of the responsibility in this situation. We have the ultimate authority and the ultimate responsibility rests with us.”

The release stated that the board could not legally comment on the “actual job performance” of any employee because it is prohibited by law. It also stated that the county saved $85,000 by accepting St. Amant’s resignation and not hiring a replacement human resources manager.

The release did not answer the long-standing question of why St. Amant was paid more than $25,000 for not working. If the board was uninformed about the reasons, then why did the county administrators give her the money?

In early November, two court cases, one naming St. Amant as a defendant, were settled out of court. Both cases involved the August 2003 death of Amanda Katherine McDonald on Salem Church Road after she lost control of her car. McDonald’s husband, Jerry McDonald, filed suits in superior court and federal court against Tift County and several county officials and employees. St. Amant was named as a defendant in the federal suit.

According to the suits, after McDonald’s death, St. Amant, in her role as county insurance representative and safety liaison, was part of an investigation into the accident and the road itself. The suits stated that following the investigation, then-county commission chairman Buddy Bryan and then-county manager Roger Dill made the decision to perform emergency resurfacing and paving work on the road.

The federal suit claimed that county officials called for the paving of Salem Church Road after McDonald’s accident in an effort to destroy evidence. In the superior court case, Chief Judge Gary McCorvey, considering similar evidence, said that the county’s actions amounted to a “spoliation” or intentional destruction of evidence to prevent a lawsuit. The federal suit alleged that county representatives, including St. Amant, engaged in acts “which fostered an environment of lawlessness by Tift County.”

What connection the lawsuits had to St. Amant’s severance, if any, is unknown.

In December, the Gazette received the answer to another Open Records request made in October. The request called for e-mails between St. Amant, Park and other county department heads. The newspaper received nearly 400 responses, mostly routine correspondence between co-workers. However, much of the information was redacted or blacked out, in cases when they seemingly should not be. Even Reinhardt admitted that the e-mails might need another look because “it sounds like some of the things that were redacted ought not to have been.”

None of the e-mails referred to St. Amant’s resignation or her severance package. None of them explain, or even hint, at why she was paid $25,000, and the county has not responded to the Gazette’s request for a new set of e-mails without improper redactions.

The question remains.

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