Officer Balks At Charges

Stephanie Myers-News Herald

Attorney claims retaliation led to Leslie Johnson's termination

Leslie Johnson is challenging allegations of official misconduct lodged against her in a disciplinary action letter that preceded her termination last month as Lenoir City's codes enforcement officer.

Johnson's attorney John Cleveland, of Cleveland and Cleveland PC in Sweetwater, said he believed the termination stemmed from a tussle on building codes for the new Lenoir City Hall building.
Cleveland said he did not believe the city had "for cause" reasons to terminate Johnson's contract Jan. 25.
"Right now, without further investigation or research, I suspect the city could terminate her contract for cause for no reason at all, but they can't lawfully terminate her employment for an illegal reason," Cleveland said. "They can't do it in retaliation for lawful actions that she may have taken."
"That's when this started to be a problem," he said. "There really wasn't a problem with her employment before that."
...If nothing else then I believe there has been a breach of contract, but beyond that I don't know until I get a chance to meet with Ms. Johnson face to face and discuss it some more.
Cleveland said Johnson attempted to enforce building codes after the city bought the SunTrust Bank building on Highway 321, asking "that the city apply for a permit and use a licensed contractor to do the work and obtain all the required inspections of the work as it proceeded and before it was occupied.
The city purchased the 22,000 square foot building on Highway 321 late last year for $720,000 in an effort to combine government offices under one roof.
"She believed the city was required todo those things just the same as anyone else doing construction within the city," Cleveland said. As I understand it, the city doesn't believe it has to obey it's own building codes.
"They had never talked to Ms. Johnson about it. They had sort of a hurried meeting that, as I understood it, there was no notice that there was work to be done on this building was on the agenda," he said. "They approved the money to do the work." When she saw that is what they had done in their meeting it was the first she knew about it. I don't know exactly how it happened, but sometime after that they had a discussion about the fact that they had not applied for a permit or anything else."
Johnson said in an earlier interview that her city contract was terminated with cause. Johnson would be entitled to one year's salary plus benefits if the termination was deemed without cause.
"I think at the very least that they did not have cause under her contract to deny her severance pay, and it may have been in retaliation for her efforts to enforce the building codes," Cleveland said.
According to a disciplinary action letter in Johnson's personal file, which the News-Herald obtained by request through the Tennessee Open Records Act, Johnson had violated "at least three" areas of city policy. The letter to Johnson noted: "1) your continuing bad habit of not keeping your supervisor informed as to your whereabouts during business hours; this is tantamount to insubordination; 2) your being away from your office for extended periods of time, during business hours, not engaged in city business; this behavior is tantamount to neglect of duty..."

Cleveland argued against the city's written allegations, saying the nature of her job required Johnson to stay out of the office for extended periods.

"That was her job. Her work was often out of the office," Cleveland said. "Well, just in a general sense, we believe that all of the reasons that the city had given are just a pretext, and none of those are out of the ordinary or any way different than the way Ms. Johnson has been expected to conduct herself during her work the whole time she's been there. None of this has been a problem until just recently."

The letter also stated Johnson misused an "assigned City-owned vehicle; a violation of the City's Vehicle Use Policy, as well as abuse of City equipment."

"Obviously there are times - she is a single mother - when she had to have her child from one place to another at the end of the day, for example, when it would be crazy for her to go home and change vehicles to get him to wherever he needed, and there were times when she may have taken her child to a dentist appointment, doctor's appointment, wherever using the truck, but it was never a problem," Cleveland said. "it wasn't just understood that she would do that, but her supervisor knew she did that."

Cleveland said the city did not inform Johnson of the alleged violations until the termination.

"Her job as codes enforcement officer required her to be out of the office a lot, and in terms of not keeping her supervisor informed it's my understanding there hasn't been any problem about that until now. I think part of it is the change in supervisor that happened back in the fall," Cleveland said, referencing Lenoir City Police Chief Don white, who was named the city's first public safety director in November.

White oversees Lenoir City Fire and Police departments and the city Codes Enforcement Department.

"So, she was moved from one supervisor to another, and it was my understanding that up until now there had been no problems that this supervisor, the police chief, had discussed with her at all," Cleveland said. "There wasn't problems before there was a change of supervisor, and since the change there hasn't been any meeting with the new supervisor to tell her there were any problems.

"She didn't know any of it was a problem," he said. "She didn't have a reason to be upset about it until they terminated her. That was the first she knew that anybody thought there were problems."

In a written account of an oral warning to Johnson in June 2011, City Administrator Dale Hurst wrote he had received complaints of her office and staff" (1) all going to lunch at the same time; (2) not following up on residents' calls for information, (3) not taking phone calls when your staff are in the office." The written account was included in Johnson's personnel file.

Cleveland would not comment on the warning, saying he had not read the file.