Note: This should have mentioned that the original verdict in the case was reversed on appeal by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, though it still stands that Elaine Matthews won her battle against the commissioners in the court of her peers.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the fact that the employees of the Medical College of Georgia/Georgia Health Sciences University and Augusta State University have been zip-lipped about the abominable “Georgia Regents University” name for the combined schools.
The assumption is that they’re keeping quiet so dictator Ricarda Azziz doesn’t retaliate against them. The reality is that they’re on firm footing to speak their opinions.
But Elaine Matthews also could probably tell us a few things about reality.
Most people in Columbia County probably have forgotten what happened to Matthews. It was nearly 20 years ago, after all, and a majority of the county’s residents have arrived since then.
Many of the newer residents live in the booming Grovetown area, where they might see Matthews these days in her new role as the city of Grovetown’s first human resources director, as highlighted Wednesday in Valerie Rowell’s story in The News-Times.
When they meet her, they’ll find a friendly, conscientious, detail-oriented worker who will do a fantastic job whipping the city’s personnel issues into shape. It’s less likely they’ll know Matthews once was fired from her job in Columbia County government for speaking out in protection of the taxpayers.
What they should also know is that she fought back – and won.
Back in 1993, after months of schmoozing, wining and dining, the Columbia County Commission was prepared to turn over its landfill operations to a private Florida company. The deal would have been a terrific, $8 million ripoff for taxpayers, and then-county clerk Matthews was one of several people in the community who spoke out in opposition to the unfolding disaster.
It was only in the 11th hour that newly elected county commissioner Diane Ford switched sides and voted against the contract, rescuing taxpayers from what would have been an enormously costly debacle.
But it didn’t end there. Not long after, in a specially called meeting, commissioners announced a government “reorganization.” Matthews was drawn out of the hierarchy – and out of a job.
It was abundantly clear to everyone that Matthews was targeted for speaking out against the landfill deal. She then took her case to court and proved it.
Matthews sued Columbia County and the commission. The case dragged out for nearly eight years, finally going to trial in 2000. A jury took just three hours to find in her favor, awarding her $385,000 for lost wages, mental anguish and suffering.
Judge Dudley Bowen ruled the three-member commission majority who voted to “restructure” Matthews into unemployment – Ford and fellow commissioners Richard Reynolds and David Titus – was protected from personal liability, as was then-County Administrator Steve Szablewski. That meant Columbia County taxpayers were on the hook for their actions.
None of the commissioners are still in office, and Szablewski retired last year. The landfill company is out of business, and the county’s landfill is long since closed.
Matthews, however, survives and continues to serve the public. It’s nice to see the good guy win.
It’s also nice to see Matthews back at work. Grovetown is fortunate to have her.
Meanwhile, those college educators and workers scared of Azziz’s shadow should take heart: Doing the right thing can, in fact, pay off.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Email barry.paschal@newstimes online.com, or call 706-863-6165, extension 106. Follow at twitter.com/