CONYERS — A discussion over a severance package for former Public Relations Department director Jorge Diez erupted into a heated debate between Board of Commissioners Chair Oz Nesbitt Sr. and Post 1 Commissioner Sherri Washington at a March work session.
Diez, who ran Nesbitt’s campaign in 2016 when Nesbitt was first elected chairman, was named director of Community Affairs and Innovative Programming for the county in February 2017. That position later evolved into the Public Relations Department.
Diez abruptly resigned on Feb. 26, and after Washington met with him, she and Post 2 Commissioner Dr. Doreen Williams apparently agreed to give Diez a severance package with a one-time lump sum payment of $31,155.90. Board approval of the package by ratification after the agreement and payment had been made was the topic of discussion at the March 16 work session, with the ratification vote set for the March 23 BOC meeting.
According to records obtained by the Citizen through an Open Records request, Diez was paid for 155.2 hours of paid time off that he had accrued and an additional three months of salary based on his annual compensation of $105,000. As part of the severance agreement drawn up by County Attorney Qader Baig, Diez agrees to release the county from any claims or demands “arising either directly or indirectly out of Diez’ present or past employment relationship with the county.”
The Citizen is pursuing additional county public records related to Diez’s employment and the circumstances surrounding his departure from the county.
At the March 16 work session, Washington and Williams initially made no comment on the issue, but Nesbitt stated he was “looking for clarity,” since Diez resigned rather than being released by the county.
“My understanding has always been clear that when we talk about a severance, a severance is not paid to an employee who quits their job,” Nesbitt said. “Mr. Diez submitted a resignation and quit his job abruptly, and said to the chief of staff that it was effective immediately, and he turned it in and walked out. (There is) nowhere in Rockdale County or Georgia where an employee walks in and tells their employer he quits, and then someone turns around and rewards them with a severance. He’s already received a check in the amount of $31,155.90.
“Next week there is going to be a vote. I’m already voting against this,” Nesbitt said on March 16. “This is not something that I can support. First of all, it is a slap in the face to the taxpayers and citizens of Rockdale County. Number two, to all of the employees of the county, it is a slap in their faces and setting a precedent on behalf of the county. These inconsistent practices are something I cannot and will not support.”
Washington then said she was ready to comment. She said prior to his resignation, that she was made aware by Diez of a meeting he had with Nesbitt in which Diez presented a letter outlining needs of his department. Diez secretly recorded the meeting and allowed Washington to hear the recording (Under Georgia law, in a conversation between two people, as long as one of the two knows the conversation is being taped, it is legal to record it.)
In the letter Diez asks to be included as one of the county’s executive directors “in both substance and in salary.”
“This move will set the tone for your endorsement and clear up any lingering questions as to my current professional status within your administration,” Diez wrote.
Washington said she took offense both at the way Nesbitt talked to Diez and also at remarks he made about her and Williams.
“That recording; I will give you my three D’s,” said Washington, who is an attorney. “It was disgusting. It was demoralizing. It was degrading, not only to him, but to us as board members. It was a recording that, if I had to defend, there was no defense for it in the matter of creating a hostile work environment...
“One of the things he (Diez) asked for was consideration for a raise similar to the ones that you had just given three other people, and the vileness and the disgusting manner in which you spoke to that gentleman was incomprehensible,” she added. “I can’t believe that he made it beyond that meeting without turning in his resignation.
“I was embarrassed and disgusted when I heard the recording, and so I believe that a severance was in order because in this we have asked that he give up any rights that he may have to come back and sue us for a hostile work environment,” Washington continued. “It wasn’t my idea to put all this on the record, but you asked why we would pay him $31,000? We would have paid him more than that in attorneys’ fees once he filed the lawsuit. So we figured that this would be a great way to cut our losses and for us to move on and he to move on as we protect this county. So that is why we entertained a severance.”
Nesbitt responded that “as the the day-to-day manager, the county administrator, the chairman and CEO of the county, who holds every employee that reports to me accountable, that is the not duty of Post 1 or Post 2. If you received what I received from him, then you would have known that the chewing out he received was warranted.”
Washington stated she had also received a copy of the letter Diez gave Nesbitt. She did not provide specific details about what is contained in the recording Diez shared with her.
“In several instances, you referred to that particular letter and not only were you degrading to him, but you made several degrading references to us in your comments to him,” she said. “You talk about us having a great relationship, us repairing whatever relationship we have, but then when we’re not there, you go and make certain comments, and we’re still put on the defensive at any given time.”
Nesbitt stated that he holds department directors to a high degree of accountability and that if they do something wrong, they will be held accountable.
“That accountability may include a chewing out,” Nesbitt said. “I may have hurt his feelings and chewed him out, but it doesn’t mean that he got fired and it doesn’t mean or warrant that the Board of Commissioners is supposed to give him a severance. You made the decision, along with Commissioner Williams, you all are going to make a vote next week. I’ve stated what my position is. I don’t think that just because you get chewed out by your boss and you don’t get fired when you should have been fired, you decide that you’re going to go and get a severance.”
At the BOC meeting on March 23, the vote to ratify the severance package for Diez was 2-1, with Washington and Williams voting in favor, and Nesbitt dissenting.