Pendergrass leaders grapple with huge whistleblower judgment

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Pendergrass city council meetings are typically quiet, scheduled in the mornings when many people are at work. Taxpayers are just now learning their city could be on the hook for more than $1 million owed to two whistleblowers.

The math just doesn't add up. Could that mean a Georgia town might one day disappear?

Miles off the main road, everything about Pendergrass is typically small and quiet. Even their city council meetings. But not on this day. Meredith Davison showed up to question the mayor and council about a report she saw the night before on FOX 5.

"That's a hefty bill," she pointed out. "And it's not fair for the taxpayers to have to pay it."

Pendergrass faces an uncertain future. Earlier this month, two former employees won a huge verdict against the city, more than $1 million, a jury agreeing the mayor and city council had retaliated against them for blowing the whistle on ticket fixing and questionable spending by city manager Rob Russell.

Russell said the tickets were going to be thrown out anyway once they got to court. City clerk Katherine Rintoul was laid off after complaining to the mayor. Police lieutenant Bill Garner later quit, claiming a hostile work environment.
It would take eight years to get the case before a jury.

"I knew if I could get this matter in any way, shape or form in front of 12 people, they would see it," declared attorney Nancy Val Preda. "Because you can't miss it."

But people like Meredith Davison want to know what happens now? The city owes more than $1 million, but its budget is barely $340,000 annually. She and her husband arrived in Pendergrass 12 years ago.

"Honestly, if this is a burden the taxpayers are going to have to carry then my husband and I are considering moving," she admitted.

City attorney Thomas McCormack told her Pendergrass will decide soon whether to appeal.

"Worse case scenario, you file the appeal and lose the appeal. How does the city then handle a $1 million judgment?" I asked.

"Well, that's bridges down the road yet," McCormack answered. "Granted that's something that we'll be talking about with outside council."

Pendergrass became a city in 1891, thanks to the railroad and a thriving cotton industry. But the town is no longer on the main road to the county seat of Jefferson. The estimated 700 residents provide its biggest source of income: property taxes, about $74,000 each year.

City manager Rob Russell told the FOX 5 I-Team one option to avoid the judgment could be to dissolve the city, eliminating the two-man police department and other city services for residents.

"We'd be ok with that," responded homeowner Meredith Davison.

But Mayor Monk Tolbert -- whose family stretches back generations here -- wasn't ready to talk about that possibility or any mistakes he may have made to bring Pendergrass to such a precarious condition.

"If you had to do it over again would you do anything different?" I asked. While the mayor was slow to answer, the city attorney decided to answer instead.