In the news: Sheriff Darr's turmoil, superintendents round out 2013 government, education news

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 27, 2013 

This has been a year of loss, change, turmoil and mysteries in government and education on both sides of the river.

The Columbus Police Department lost four of its own in a three-month span, the judicial lineups on both sides of the river were shaken up, schools closed, budgets were busted, a new school superintendent was hired and another, once highly revered, was ousted.

1. Bad year for Sheriff Darr

It wasn't a great year for Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr, with him being on the losing end of a sex discrimination lawsuit on top of revelations that he had overspent his budget by a total of $7 million over the five years he has been in office.

A jury found that Lt. Joan Wynn and Lt. Donna Tompkins were discriminated against when Darr promoted a less-qualified man to a captain's position. But the jury did not award any financial compensation, prompting the defense to claim a victory of sorts.

But then U.S. District Judge Clay Land ordered Tompkins to be promoted next July and that her pay immediately raised to captain's level.

And just this week, the city agreed to pay Tompkins and Wynn a lump sum payment of $265,000 to end the suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court, Middle District of Georgia, in 2011.

Attorney fees will be paid out of the settlement amount.

Then during summer budget discussions, it was revealed that he had overspent his previous fiscal year's budget by $2 million, bringing his five-year deficit total to about $7 million.

Darr also has asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look into three recent inmate deaths in the Muscogee County Jail.

On Nov. 8, authorities found 57-year-old Issac Kindred dead after a fight with a second inmate who has since been charged with murder and aggravated assault.

A 46-year-old inmate, Lori Carroll, died Oct. 24. Her cause of death is unclear. On Oct. 29, 21-year-old inmate Maurice Grier died of a brain aneurysm.

2. MCSB hires a new superintendent

After a 16-month search, the Muscogee County School Board hired David Lewis, an associate superintendent in Polk County, Fla., as the county's new superintendent of education.

Lewis took the reigns from interim (and former) Superintendent John Phillips, who had been filling in since the departure of former Superintendent Susan Andrews.

The 16-month search required two consultants, 50 applicants and seven interviews before culminating in Lewis' hiring.

"We're going to lead this district to be the premier district in the state of Georgia," Lewis said the day his hiring was announced.

3. DiChiara gets a pricey boot

Two years after being named Alabama Superintendent of the Year, Phenix City School Superintendent Larry DiChiara was dismissed from his position, but with a buyout that will likely cost the school system around $750,000.

No one on the city's school board will say why DiChiara was being bought out and the board's attorney says it may never be fully disclosed.

But DiChiara filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the Phenix City Board of Education. The complaint, filed in Russell County Circuit Court, seeks an immediate temporary restraining order, injunctive relief, declaratory judgment for breach of contract and unspecified damages.

DiChiara and the board were in negotiations over the final amount of the buyout.

DiChiara said earlier this month he and his attorney "don't see the board budging, and we certainly aren't budging, so that's why I'm predicting it'll end up in court."

4. A bad year for the CPD

The Columbus Police Department laid to rest four of its own in a three-month span in the summer.

First, 25-year veteran Capt. Jackey Long succumbed to cancer in early July. Long was the second in command in administrative services. He was a human resources professional with a master's degree and was one of the department's experts on benefits.

Cpl. Keith Slay died that same month from injuries sustained in a truck crash while in the line of duty. Slay, a member of the Metro Narcotics Task Force, was also the department's helicopter pilot.

In August, 31-year veteran Capt. Vince Pasko died in an apparent suicide. Pasko was second in command for support services and was one of the department's pension experts. He was also playing a key role in the implementation of a new $2.5 million record-keeping system.

Finally, Lt. Lynn Joiner died in September, less than a month after he retired. Joiner was known for his ability to work on complex issues. He earned a bachelor of science degree and a master's degree in public administration from Columbus College, now Columbus State University.

"I have never seen casualties within this department come so fast, with this level of impact," said Police Chief Ricky Boren, a 42-year veteran of the department.

"It has been one funeral after another," said police chaplain Roy Isasi.

5. Sumbry pleads guilty

Once a fixture in Phenix City politics, former Councilman Arthur Sumbry Sr., who served eight nonconsecutive terms 1980-2012, pleaded guilty to forgery Oct. 8 in exchange for a sentence of probation and a promise never to seek public office again.

The 72-year-old also agreed never again to serve as a notary public as he told Lee County Circuit Judge Jacob A. Walker III he was guilty of helping Ella Mae Sanders forge a deed. The deed would have transferred the home of 94-year-old Ambros Adams Sr. to Sanders' son Elliott S. McCray, who had served as Adams' caretaker.

Sumbry notarized the document, and when Adams' daughter disputed the authenticity of her ailing father's signature, Sumbry in a civil trial testified he witnessed Adams sign the deed. The daughter hired a handwriting expert who found the signature had 10 inconsistencies when compared to other examples of Adams' writing. The deed was declared void.

In the plea deal, Sumbry pledged not only to never seek office again, but to accept no office offered to him. Walker sentenced Sumbry to two years' probation. The Lee County judge was appointed to hear Sumbry's case after Russell County judges recused themselves.

6. GBI clears Myers, McKoon

A long-running brouhaha between local attorneys Frank Myers and Josh McKoon, also a state senator, and members of the Muscogee County School Board resulted in a GBI investigation and a state attorney general's ruling putting the matter to bed.

At issue is a long-standing no-bid relationship between the school district and the law firm of Hatcher Stubbs. Myers and McKoon think the services should be put out to bid like any other contract.

At one point in the disagreement, Myers, a political operative, told board member John Wells, "I'm taking you out in 2014. Got it?"

Wells claimed it was a physical threat. The GBI and attorney general said it was constitutionally protected free speech. They also ruled that McKoon broke no laws for his role in the situation.

7. District closes two schools

Citing dwindling enrollment and budget challenges, the Muscogee County School Board voted to close Marshall Middle School and Edgewood Elementary School.

"It's been a tough month for all of us," said Edgewood Principal Melana Cassell, who retired after the school closed. "This is my second home, Edgewood Elementary. We are a community."

At Marshall, teacher of the year Gabrielle Bryant cried as she spoke of the school closing.

"I just hope I can still be involved with the kids," she said. "I know whatever happens is what God has in store for me."

8. Judicial changes on both banks

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal appointed two new Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit Superior Court judges, one to a newly minted position and one to replace retiring Judge John Allen.

Appointed to the posts were State Court Judge Maureen Gottfried and local attorney Ron Mullins, a partner in Page, Scrantom, Sprouse, Tucker & Ford. Solicitor General Ben Richardson was tapped to fill Gottfried's vacated state court post.

In Alabama, the retirement of Circuit Court Judge George Greene shook up the courthouse roster. Gov. Robert Bentley elevated District Court Judge Michael Bellamy to the Circuit Court post, making him the first black to hold that position in Russell County.

9. School board bans corporal punishment

The Muscogee County School Board voted to ban corporal punishment in local schools.

Interim Superintendent Phillips recommended the ban based on several factors:

• Poor children and minorities are more likely to be punished.

• It teaches children that violence is a way to solve problems.

• And corporal punishment has been banned in more than 100 countries.

10. Liberty District plan draws fire

A plan to demolish the Booker T. Washington public housing complex and relocate some residents to mixed-income apartments in the Liberty District drew considerable fire before ultimately being abandoned.

The Housing Authority of Columbus proposed the plan, backed by Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, City Manager Isaiah Hugley and Liberty District Board Chairman Robert Anderson.

But the plan drew considerable fire from property owners in the Liberty District, including Tax Commission Lula Huff and Councilor Bruce Huff.

Ultimately the plan was abandoned.

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