County officials deny Durden's allegations in civil lawsuit

COVINGTON — While former county lawn-care contractor Billy Durden is claiming he was libeled and slandered by Newton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Keith Ellis, County Manager John Middleton and G & G Landscape Management owner Gary Campbell, the allegations have been formally denied.

Attorney Kerry Doolittle of Watkinsville is representing Durden, who claims the three conspired and personally sought to end his lawn services contract with Newton County.

County Attorney Tommy Craig, who is representing Ellis and Middleton in the lawsuit, filed formal court responses to Durden’s allegations denying willful intent to harm.

Doolittle argues that Craig representing the two county officials could be a conflict of interest. Craig is not only representing Ellis and Middleton in this lawsuit, but is the attorney in the lawsuit Durden filed against the county for wrongful termination.

“While these two lawsuits focus on different legal claims, they share many factual circumstances in common,” Doolittle said. “The potential for a conflict of interest exists any time an attorney seeks to represent multiple parties involved in the same event for the simple reason that a legal defense or factual assertion which may benefit one defendant may at the same time harm another defendant.”

Doolittle also said that Craig could be a potential witness since he or a member of his staff sat in on at least one meeting the county held to discuss Durden’s contract.

“Mr. Craig and/or his staff participated in at least one meeting with regards to the five-year contract for landscape services, presumably drafted the contract document between Mr. Durden and Newton County, and presumably attended the meetings which first approved and then later rescinded the five-year deal with Mr. Durden,” Doolittle said. “The allegations made and evidence presented against Mr. Durden during the latter meeting are relevant to the defamation claims. That creates a different type of conflict, between the individual as a disinterested witness and as an attorney advocating for his client.”

Craig said he has legitimate and sound defenses to both the civil action lawsuit brought against Ellis and Middleton as well as the lawsuit Durden filed against the county.

In the response to the civil suit, Craig noted that Ellis and Middleton are entitled to official immunity, which protects government officials from lawsuits alleging that they violated plaintiffs’ rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right.

Craig said he couldn’t give details about the case and whether or not Ellis and Middleton would declare immunity.

When asked if the attorney fees will be paid by the taxpayers, Craig said, “When elected officials are sued as a result of activities that arise in their duties, Georgia law allows the county to pay the attorney fees if any judgment is rendered against them, but I don’t expect that to happen. I expect both Mr. Ellis and Mr. Middleton to be dismissed early on.”

Durden worked under contract with the county for more than 10 years. County commissioners renewed Durden’s contract on Feb. 5, 2013, with a 3-2 vote, locking in the county’s lawn care costs of about $98,000 for five years. The commission later met on Feb. 26 and voted to not renew the current agreement because Durden had failed to renew his business license before it expired in 2012.

County commissioners agreed to issue a Request for Proposal for the landscape maintenance service in late February — the first time since 2006 — and awarded the contract to the lowest bidder, G & G Landscape Management, in May 2013 for a total cost of $67,680.