01/06/10 — Manager: Honesty best plan for county workers

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Manager: Honesty best plan for county workers

By Steve Herring
Published in News on January 6, 2010 1:46 PM

Wayne County Manager Lee Smith's e-mail wishing a "Happy New Year" to all county department managers and employees also admonished them that "honesty is always the best policy."

Smith wrote in the e-mail, "If you are ever in doubt about a decision please contact your supervisor, a department manager, human resources, my office or one of the executive team members. Do not step out so far on an issue that you find yourself vulnerable or 'not' completely honest.

"From personnel, finance and operations, I mandate honesty, superior management and always, always be 'legal.'... As a public body, we must be transparent and honor the commitment to each and every business and citizen of Wayne County. The citizens, county commissioners and I expect and demand nothing less."

While the e-mail is not a direct outgrowth of the ongoing SBI investigation involving school system facilities and operations, the county has still had to answer questions about it, he said.

Two school system em-ployees -- Sprunt Hill, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services, and Danny Langley, director of maintenance for the school system -- have been placed on administrative leave with pay pending the outcome of the inquiry.

"Obviously we have gotten calls, and people want to know," Smith said. "The schools, you know, are our partner. What does it (investigation) mean? We don't know. These are things that are under investigation, so we don't have real knowledge of what is going on, but again, locally, we feel like people need to have confidence in the local government, state and federal government.

"I can't say a thing about the state and federal. I can only question what goes on in Wayne County government and I am held accountable for that. I want to make sure that all of our team members are accountable."

Smith said the e-mail is not related to recent allegations by an attorney for a county taxpayers' group that Commissioner Jack Best has a conflict of interest by serving on transportation planning committees.

Rather, the e-mail is more closely tied to a number of political scandals that have cast a pall on state government this year, Smith said.

"What I am afraid is people get caught up in rhetoric, but never get to the real facts, never get to the real truth," he said. "It is sound bites. People speculate a lot about government, and they have concerns about what we do."

Smith said he is part of the "we," as are the county's some 800 to 900 employees.

Part of talking to employees is to let them know that they have rights and that as employees they should "always do the right thing," Smith said.

"That they should follow policy, but always, always, as I have said, be legal," he said. "If you are not sure, go to somebody, but don't get so far out that you could find yourself in trouble. ... If you don't take action you will be held accountable for those things.

"I think it is understood, but I think it is important and I had several commissioners say to me in the last couple of weeks it is important to reiterate that. Transparency is needed since everything we do is public. We live in a fishbowl by law -- honesty and transparency, but we also have an obligation to the public and it was just a good opportunity to restate that."

Smith said he could be anywhere in the county and people would come up and make comments.

"Facts are facts and the truth is truth and if somebody has a question, come ask the question," he said. "It is like when the guy came up and asked about my contract. I went and got him a copy and went through it with him. It is public. There is nothing hidden. The public assumes, there is always that anti-government sentiment, and I am probably as skeptical as they are about things about the state and federal government.

Smith said people do ask about his salary, but that more often than not he has people who come up and say they would not have his job.

"I tell them I love my job. You have got to love it," he said.

County government is not perfect, he said.

"If I were to go through with a fine tooth comb I could probably find errors and things that might be wrong, but I am going to do my darnedest to make sure things are done honestly, with transparency and done the right way."

Smith said he is questioned by the public at least once or twice a week about different issues.

"They may not like my answer or the tax office's answer or health director's answer," he said. "But we are going to give them the answer to the best of our ability. We are going to give them the information they are asking for. We will tell them what constraints were are working under and why we are doing what we are doing.

"That is our responsibility and I don't think we have ever denied anybody that opportunity, but for my folks they need to be honest. Stuff happens and when it does we are going to do the right thing."