“He’s a crazy nut, isn’t he?” Keaton said Monday of Stephenson.
But Stephenson, who is retiring after 28 years, points out that Keaton hasn’t taken office yet.
“We have custody of the records and evidence and a lot of things, and so the only people who can have access to the working area in the clerk’s office are people who work in the clerk’s office, nobody else,” he said.
Keaton said Stephenson complained to the Cobb Sheriff’s Department after it granted her access to the clerk’s office, a department of 100 employees with a budget of $5.2 million.
“I didn’t know it was a problem until Jay pitched a fit about it and accused me of inappropriate behavior,” she said.
“He told the lieutenant that my job didn’t start until Jan. 2 and that until then it was his office, and he wanted no one to have access to that office,” Keaton said. “When he figured out that we were going to be bringing basically our own team in, and he had a bunch of people that were retiring so I didn’t see why it mattered anyway. He just is sour grapes, what can I say? It’s extremely petty.”
Keaton said it boils down to the fact that Stephenson didn’t want her to succeed him.
“He’s upset because I won the election,” she said.
Yet Stephenson, who dismissed Keaton’s comments as wholly inaccurate, said he tried to make the transition seamless, providing her with account numbers to the various banks in which the office does business and working with Keaton’s deputy clerk-elect, Kimberly Carroll, to order new stationery. He also set up a series of one-on-one meetings between Keaton and his three division managers. Stephenson said for the first meeting, Keaton didn’t bother to show up. For the second meeting, she showed up 45 minutes late, didn’t apologize and refused to answer the division manager’s questions, he said.
The two have different management strategies, he said.
“She sat there and told me ‘this is a political office, and I’ve got a team that helped me during my campaign, and that’s the team I’m going to bring in to help me run the office,’” Stephenson said. “That’s the old-style, Chicago way of running an office. You bring in your buddies. My take on the office has always been that it’s a public office here to serve the public. The only person I brought in with me when I got elected was my chief deputy. We do hiring based not on who’s your friend or who you support in a political race, but on the question of ‘can this individual do the job we need done or not?’”
Stephenson said that on Friday, Keaton told the staff that if they liked him or her campaign rival, John Skelton and his chief deputy clerk, Elva Dornbusch, they could leave now, he said.
“It’s created a terrible situation in the office with the staff because they divided up into groups, and you’ve got the group that’s Rebecca’s friends, and they know they got a job, and they’re all happy. You’ve got another group, and that’s their job working in the clerk’s office, and they’re worried about whether or not they get to keep it, and then you’ve got the third group are the people who know they weren’t going to have a job with Rebecca, and that’s primarily the management staff,” Stephenson said.
For her part, Keaton says that while employees who work in the clerk’s office do so at the clerk’s pleasure — “There are no contracts,” she said — she only intends to hire six to 10 new employees, some of whom will fill positions from people who have retired.
“I told Jay from the beginning that I had no intention of coming in and wiping everybody out,” she said. “I thought we had an understanding of that, but he just gets so wild-haired.
“If you say anything to him, he’s so irrational he just blows up,” she said. “He’s unstable.”
“I said, ‘You know what? You’re hurting no one but your employees because I can’t even tell the folks who are not going to be coming back … to give them enough time to look for other jobs, because I’m afraid if I do … they’re going to sabotage the office. They already are.”
Stephenson wonders how Keaton can run the office without the combined 130 years of experience the management staff has.
“She’s run several different races over the last 10 or a dozen years,” Stephenson said. “She got real good at campaigning, and she won an election. She ran for judge, she ran for state court solicitor, she ran for clerk. She won. I think now it’s dawning on her that she has to figure out how to do the job.”
Keaton said she’s shared her frustration with Cobb Board of Commissioners Chairman Tim Lee.
“It’s a mess, trying to work around all of it and talk to employees secretly and have them call me secretly and after hours,” she said.
Lee said he does not intend to step into the fray.
“It’s an elected official and an official-elect with different thoughts about how the transition should occur, and it’s my hope that they will be able to work together and be able to make it as smooth as possible for the employees and citizens of Cobb County,” Lee said.
As clerk, Keaton will receive a base salary of $109,425.