10/21/09 — Commissioners question rules for removing board member

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Commissioners question rules for removing board member

By Steve Herring
Published in News on October 21, 2009 1:46 PM

At least two county commissioners want a kinder and gentler way of telling future Planning Board members that they can be removed from office at any time with or without cause.

The first crack at that wording will go to the Planning Board itself and not the committee charged with reviewing the county ordinance that first created the Planning Board some 40 years ago.

The county is in the midst of reviewing the ordinance. The committee charged with starting the process met Oct. 5. Most of the suggested changes appear minor.

It is the suggested wording for removal from office that sparked Tuesday's debate.

Commissioner Steve Keen, who also serves on the Planning Board, did not address that issue when he made a motion during the board's Tuesday meeting to send the amended ordinance back to committee for further discussion.

But later in the meeting he raised concerns about the wording and said he has spoken to county attorney Borden Parker about it.

Keen's motion prompted Commissioner Jack Best to question County Manager Lee Smith and Parker about the review process. Best said it was his understanding that the next step was Planning Board review and recommendation followed by a final decision by commissioners.

Parker said commissioners were free to do wherever they wanted as far as the ordinance was concerned. However, the motion, if approved, would send the ordinance back to committee, he said.

"The committee has already presented it (to commissioners)," Best said.

Commissioners John Bell and J.D. Evans agreed and the motion failed 6-1, with Keen voting for his motion.

Commissioner Andy Anderson broached the wording issue.

Anderson questioned termination of a board member using the wording "with or without cause." Anderson said he knew questions had been raised, but did not say by whom.

Keen later said he had spoken with Parker.

Parker said the issue of removal had been raised because Planning Board members are appointed to a specific term making it unclear whether they could be removed. Parker said he had spoken with officials at the School of Government in Chapel Hill who had agreed.

Parker said he could not find any case law that would support removal as the ordinance is now written. It was decided to spell out the process so that there would be "no questions" about it, he said.

If the county decided to rewrite the provision to say removal "for cause" then it would need to spell out a list of causes that could be cited for removal, Parker said.

With or without cause seems to be a "strong term," Anderson said.

"Is there not a better word to do that, but not sound as strong as it does?" he said.

"It bothers me," Keen interrupted. "It bothers me to quite an extent."

"Steve, give me a chance to talk," Anderson said. "We are discussing this now. I know it has been talked about."

Parker suggested that it could be written to read that commissioners could remove a member at their "discretion."

Best wanted to know if discretion meant the same thing and would "take care of that (issue)."

Keen asked Parker if discretion still meant removal with or without cause.

Parker said that it did.

"I can't go with that," Keen said. "As commissioners when we appoint someone then remove them, first of all it makes me look stupid as a commissioner. No. 2 is how is that person who is appointed going to do their job they feel like they have been called to do being under the duress of that kind of statement that a commissioner, if not happy with his or her decision, can pull that person aside and threaten them without cause. That is not right for people in Wayne County serving on any board.

"How can the people, without a political agenda, serve on a board without fear of being terminated from that position before their term is out thinking they are doing the best in their heart for the county, but in fear they are going to be terminated and embarrassed through radio, TV and paper. That is just not fair to the people of this county."

Bell called the discussion "elementary" and said for example that Keen could hire him one day only to fire him the next day.

"We need to solve this and move on," Anderson said.

Bell told Keen he had been a commissioner for nine years during which time he had never known of the board terminating a committee member.

"Then why is it there?" Keen said.

"You have got to have a policy," Bell responded.

Keen pressed again to return the proposal to the committee.

Anderson said no then made a motion to send it to the Planning Board for review and recommendations. The motion was unanimously approved.