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Strickland out as municipal judge

COVINGTON -- The Covington City Council opted not to reappoint Municipal Court Judge David Strickland following a 45-minute closed session Monday night.

The council voted 5 to 1 to approve Keith Dalton's motion to appoint attorney Ben Hendricks as temporary Municipal Court judge until the position can be filled through an RFP (request for proposals) process. Janet Goodman opposed the motion.

"These appointments are not life-long appointments," Dalton said Tuesday. "At any time, we can make a change without giving a reason. With personnel issues, the nice thing is we can do that behind close doors, without getting into he said, she said."

Asked if there was any misconduct or impropriety that taxpayers should know about, Dalton said he did not believe so.

The Citizen has filed an open records request for a letter of complaint filed against Strickland by an employee of the company the city contracts with for probation services, East Georgia Correctional Services, LLC.

Strickland did not comment following Monday night's meeting and did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.

Strickland's attorney, Paul Oeland, said the complaint involves Strickland's personal and professional conduct, and alleges mishandling of several cases by Strickland, as well as citing his romantic relationship with an employee of the probation services company. Strickland has been separated from his wife since 2009 and is in the process of a divorce, Oeland said, adding that the relationship began after the separation and no attempts were made to keep it secret.

Oeland said city officials have long been aware of the complaints regarding the court cases mentioned in the recent letter, as well as the relationship with the probation services employee. There have also been complaints from court personnel regarding probation services, Oeland said, and there have been numerous meetings between all parties involved. He also said Strickland offered to step aside last year if city officials deemed the situation "too messy," but was advised not to do so.

Strickland, Oeland and the Municipal Court clerk were on hand to answer questions Monday but were not asked by the council to speak, Oeland said.

"David would say all those instances were brought to the attention of the city before and he believes the city looked at them and apparently didn't have any grave concerns," he said, adding that Monday's decision came as a shock.

Goodman would only say she was not pleased with the council's vote.

"It's obvious I did not think it was handled properly," she said.

The city is also wrapping up its RFP process for a new probation services company. The current contract expires in March. The council agreed at a retreat last year to review all contracts, including probation services, City Manager Steve Horton said.

The Municipal Court judge has authority to negotiate contracts for probation services, with the council having final approval, he said.

Strickland has been Municipal Court judge for 16 years. The position carries a salary of $28,000. Oeland said Strickland has no recourse to appeal, noting that the council can choose not to reappoint him at any time without giving a reason.

This is the first time the city has issued an RFP for Municipal Court judge, according to Horton.

"The RFP process amounts to more-or-less the same thing as advertising the open position to solicit applicants," Horton said. "To my knowledge the RFP/advertising process has not been used prior. It was suggested by the mayor and should be a good process."

Horton estimated it would take about two months to appoint a new judge. Hendricks, the temporary appointee, is a partner with City Attorney Ed Crudup's law firm, Crudup, Hendricks and Edgar.

Crudup, Assistant City Attorney Frank Turner Jr. and City Physician Henry Patton were all reappointed.

Last summer, the Porterdale City Council replaced Strickland as that city's Municipal Court judge.

The Porterdale Council decided in May to advertise RFQs for the positions of solicitor and judge, which at that time were held by Solicitor Qader Baig, a Conyers attorney, and Strickland. Prior to that decision, some council members had expressed dissatisfaction with the court's handling of a DUI case involving a Conyers police officer.

Baig subsequently resigned, and the council sent letters to both Baig and Strickland maintaining that the timing of its decision to advertise RFQs was coincidental and not related to dissatisfaction with the handling of the DUI case.

According to the letters, the city's decision to advertise RFQs was based on a desire to "ensure that the court is staffed by qualified and respected professionals, and that all procedures are conducted with the utmost decorum and professionalism. This can best be accomplished by periodically opening these positions for review and renewal in a public and transparent manner ...."

A Covington attorney, Strickland works at the law firm of Royston, Alexander, Royston, Hardman, Shinall and Strickland LLP.

In other news, Mayor Ronnie Johnston announced that he has a tentative agreement with City Manager Steve Horton to remain in his position for another year after his announced retirement date in July.

Some details still need to be worked out, Johnston said, and he will bring the matter before the council at its Feb. 20 meeting. Johnston stated immediately after being elected that he planned to try and convince Horton to stay longer.

Horton said Tuesday that the proposed agreement would allow him to retire but work on a contract basis "for a period of time that we define to help with the transition" to a new city manager. Horton said he still expects to work full-time, but for a reduced salary.

Horton recently said he might retire earlier than previously announced due to health issues. He said Tuesday that is still a concern.

"I want to go ahead and invoke retirement because I've got to draw a line in the dirt and say this is not a permanent thing. This is to help the city," he said. "We need a relevant time frame so that everybody knows there really is an end of the road."

Editor Alice Queen contributed to this story.