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Durden files civil suit against county officials, G&G owner

COVINGTON – A civil lawsuit was filed last week against two Newton County officials and the owner of G&G Landscape Management by county former lawn-care contractor Billy Durden claiming slander and libel.

Attorney Kerry Doolittle of Watkinsville is representing Durden, who claims Chairman Keith Ellis, County Manager John Middleton and G&G owner Gary Campbell personally sought to end his lawn services contract with the county.

“I have not received any response from Newton County, which is not surprising. The lawsuit was only filed last week. Newton County is not a party in this suit,” Doolittle said. “Once the named defendants are served, they will each have 30 days to file an answer with the court.”

Doolittle is unsure when the case will reach the trial stage.

“When this case might reach a trial is not predictable at this time. Depending upon discovery, pre-trial motions, court schedules and other factors, a case like this may not reach the trial stage before one or two years,” Doolittle said.

The civil action suit alleges interference with employment contract, emotional distress and humiliation and a loss of earning capacity.

Durden has also said he plans to pursue a suit against the county claiming wrongful termination. Attorney John Strauss sent an ante litem notice to Chairman Ellis in November. County Attorney Tommy Craig said he was investigating the claims and would report those findings to the Board of Commissioners in a closed meeting.

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.

County Manager John Middleton noted during that meeting that Durden needed to renew his business license.

Following the meeting, the Citizen examined the business license files and discovered that Durden was operating without a valid license. Durden had also operated without a license from 2002 to 2006, during which time he held the county contract for lawn care.

Durden received a termination letter from Middleton dated March 13, 2013, about a month after county commissioners voted to renew his contract. The letter stated the contract with Durden had been “terminated for cause and will not be renewed.”

Middleton’s letter stated that the Board of Commissioners met for a special called meeting on Feb. 26 and voted unanimously not to renew the current agreement since Durden’s Lawn Service did not renew its Newton County business license before it expired in 2012.

The county’s termination notice to Durden stated that the failure to renew the business licenses was not an “isolated occurrence as Durden’s Lawn Service has allowed this business license to expire yearly prior to the annual expiration date.”

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 for a total cost of $67,680.