Cook: City Hall versus the Department of Justice

Cook: City Hall versus the Department of Justice

December 19th, 2011 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

It is such a strange and startling moment to read a letter claiming that our own Chattanooga city government could become a defendant in a possible sexual harassment lawsuit.

It feels like an insult. Or a punch to the gut.

There is now a clear and present possibility that the city of Chattanooga could be sued by the Department of Justice over sexual harassment claims involving Paul Page, the former director of General Services.

In October, Page resigned after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigated and confirmed multiple allegations of sexual harassment against him.

The EEOC also found that the city retaliated against one of the victims.

In recent months, City Hall has attempted to negotiate conciliation -- payments of apology -- with Page's victims. One victim reached agreement with the city, accepting about $7,500, City Attorney Mike McMahon told WRCB-TV.

Not even $8,000. Last month, the City Council approved nearly $70,000 for new Bermuda grass greens at Brainerd Golf Course. If we do the math, that means about $3,800 per hole, so making things right with a city employee who was sexually harassed is worth about two greens of new golf course grass.

Punch. Insult.

A second victim did not accept payments offered. She told me the city's verbal offers were "less than a quarter" of the amount recommended by the EEOC.

"The commission has determined that the efforts to conciliate this case have been unsuccessful," states Sarah Smith, area director of the EEOC, in a Dec. 9 letter to City Hall and the second victim. "We are forwarding this case to the Department of Justice for a decision whether it will bring suit against the respondent."

In other words, this matter -- which could have been settled -- is now in the hands of the Department of Justice, which may decide to bring a lawsuit against the city.

And the mayor says the recent recall effort looks bad for the city's image?

Come on.

Earlier this fall, the city hired former city judge and current attorney Walter Williams to handle conciliatory negotiations. Williams, charging $250 an hour, turned in his bill to the city last month for work beginning on Sept. 21 and ending Oct. 20.

The bill totaled $8,675.

That's more than what the city paid one of the victims in the case.

Let's say that again: In the budgeting of priorities, the city has paid more to the attorney negotiating a settlement than to the person victimized and sexually harassed.

Punch. Insult.

It all could have ended in such a graceful way. This is not a Middle East peace treaty. It's not even as difficult as putting together your kid's bike at 12:43 a.m. after one too many eggnogs.

The mayor -- from the first moment of ever hearing of any indiscretion or inappropriate behavior from Page -- should have investigated and, if claims were found accurate (as they were in this case) terminated his employment. Don't allow resignation or early retirement, or, as happened in 2008, a trip to sexual harassment training and a leave of absence.

Go public. Hold news conferences. Explain. Apologize. And apologize again.

Offer payments. More than what the EEOC recommends. Double it. Send the message: We won't allow such behavior.

But instead, a potential federal lawsuit looms.

Kind of makes you want to punch back, doesn't it?

Just imagine how you'd feel if you'd been sexually harassed.

David Cook can be reached at