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Albany City Manager James Taylor's future with city at crossroads

By Carlton Fletcher, The Albany Herald, Ga.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

July 05--ALBANY -- It was an angry James Taylor who spoke with The Albany Herald on Thursday, a man hurt by what he said were lies coming from people who had, essentially, betrayed him to feed a firestorm created by a disgruntled former employee and fueled by a media that smelled controversy.

It was a much calmer, but still conflicted, Taylor who spoke with The Herald on Saturday, a man at a crossroads, but not quite sure which path would offer the best results for him and his family, and for the city they had fallen in love with and decided to make their home.

Taylor, vacationing through the Independence Day holiday at his retirement home in Florida, said Saturday he was torn between returning to his job as Albany's city manager -- and in so doing, defending himself against charges that he had done anything wrong in awarding a $20,000 bonus to city risk management employee Veronica Wright -- or just walking away from a job that he considered unfinished.

"I really don't know what my plan is right now," Taylor said. "I'm hurt and offended that my family members are taking the heat for my decision to leave (town for the holiday). I feel like I ought to come back to Albany for them and defend myself against the lies that are being spread.

"But I've reached a point where I don't know if I can contribute. I don't know if I'm the one who can bring this city together. I'm more than willing to fight any battle that confronts me, but I'm not sure my fighting this battle would get the city where it needs to be. Some way, somehow, this city has to come together. And the last thing I want to be is an impediment, someone who divides the city."

Following almost immediately in the wake of now former Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission interim General Manager Tom Berry's angry resignation, during which Berry called out four city commissioners by name and said they were standing in the way of progress in the community, an email saying the city manager's office had given Wright a $20,000 bonus started circulating. While some media focused on the accusation in the email, which picked up steam when read by members of the Albany City Commission, few contacted Taylor about it.

"It's like I told you when you first called me about that email. Sure, I gave Ms. Wright the bonus," Taylor said Saturday. "It was a business decision, and it's one I stand by. She saved the Water, Gas & Light Commission$300,000, but the work that she's done is going to end up saving this city millions of dollars.

"I feel bad for Ms. Wright, because she has done nothing wrong. I offered her the bonus as an incentive to keep her here. Because I can promise you, if she leaves, this city is going to lose millions of dollars."

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Taylor said he's aware that saving the city money is part of its employees' jobs, but he said incentives always have been part of his business plan. He said some city commissioners' remarks that they were unaware of a policy that allowed bonuses simply shows that they didn't pay attention.

"Every year -- every single year -- incentivization is part of my five-year plan, which I present to the City Commission," Taylor said. "It's in the plan that I put before the commission, and I always talk about it. There have been other employees who have gotten bonuses and payouts, and no one's ever said anything about it. And, yes, there are about nine or 10 of our current employees who deserve bonuses, too.

"I made this decision because I thought it would benefit the city. Look, if I was going to cheat the city in any way, don't you think I would have tried to get something for myself? I've been in this position for almost seven years, and I've never asked for more money or an increase in pay. I took this job to try and help this city, and in seven years I've never spent a dime that anyone could question.

"I have a city expense account, but if I have lunch with a commissioner or anyone else doing city business, I pay for it out of my own pocket. Go back through the (financial) records over the last seven years, and you won't find a nickel that I spent that was questionable."

Told that some citizens wondered if there was some kind of personal relationship between him and Wright that motivated the awarding of the bonus, Taylor at first laughed incredulously, as if such a consideration were a joke. The city manager said such conjecture was ridiculous.

"I have no kind of personal relationship with this lady," he said. "In fact, she's made it clear that she thinks I'm mean. I didn't make this decision because I'm a nice freaking guy. I made what I thought was a good business decision for the city.

"Look, don't take my word for it. Ask (City Attorney) Nathan Davis. I don't know any other employee who has done as much for the city as Ms. Wright has done. She earned every nickel of that bonus."

Taylor acknowledges that the controversy has negatively impacted his health, not something needed by a man who has diabetes, a heart condition and hypertension. Still, the warrior in him -- the Marine in him -- calls out for battle, for righting a wrong that he feels has tarnished his name and hurt the people closest to him.

"People who know me -- my friends and family -- know I never cheat at anything, not even on the golf course," he said. "I'm talking about this with you for them. They know I've not done anything that would hurt the city. And they know there is no kind of relationship between myself and Ms. Wright. If it takes me doing so to convince them, I'll write a check to the city to pay the money back right now. This is not about money to me, it's about making our city better.

"If someone could show me how my staying (on as city manager now) would bring this community together, how I could help Albany reach its potential, I'd work on until the day I die. But right now, I honestly don't know how to make that happen."

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