01/10/10 — Best tackles salary, ethics, schools

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Best tackles salary, ethics, schools

By Steve Herring
Published in News on January 10, 2010 1:50 AM

Jack Best

Wayne County Commission Chair-man Jack Best Tuesday morning fired back at efforts to make an issue of County Manager Lee Smith's salary, at an attorney for a taxpayers' group that alleges he has a conflict of interest by serving on transportation committees and at the school board for being willing to accept a 30 percent failure rate.

Best made his comments during the portion of the board's meeting time set aside for committee reports.

On County Manager Lee Smith's salary:

Best said Wayne is coming through the recession in better shape than most other counties because of Smith's foresight and leadership.

The county will begin its budget process this month, he said.

"We do not know what the state will pass down because they are so far in the hole. Hopefully, they will make the hard decisions rather than sending unfunded mandates down to the counties," he said. "Some people want to criticize what we pay our county manager. I would say this to those of you -- you do not know what you are talking about.

"I will tell you Mr. Smith is a bargain. If we had to pay him a percentage of what he has saved the county over the past five years ... we got a bargain."

Questions about Smith's $160,416 salary crop up on a routine basis. He also receives $12,000 annually for travel.

While Smith's contract with the county calls for an annual 5 percent salary increase, he did not receive one this year. He asked the commissioners in May to forgo the increase in light of the economy and the fact that county employees did not receive raises.

Although it was not mentioned Tuesday, in the past, rumors have circulated that Smith has a five-year contract with the county. It is a one-year contract.

Smith has said unlike county employees, he does not have policy and law behind him and can be fired for any reason.

Smith receives all benefits provided full-time employees. The county provides -- at no cost -- medical and dental insurance for Smith and his family and at least a 5 percent annual contribution to Smith's 401K plan.

According to data compiled by the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, Smith is among 14 managers statewide who are paid a base salary of between $150,000 to $175,000.

Smith oversees a $157.6 million budget and more than 800 full-time employees and a total workforce of close to 1,000 when part-time help is included.

On the accusations of unethical behavior:

Best was also critical of Greene County attorney Jared Hammett who is representing Wayne County Citizens for Property Rights. Hammett appeared before commissioners last month when he called on Best to resign from the Goldsboro Metropolitan Planning Organization because of conflict of interest. He did not offer specifics at that time.

He blasted Hammett for not providing the county with a list of names of the citizens he represents. Best said he is sure the number is far less than the more than 100,000 people the commissioners represent.

"He accused myself and (City Council Mayor Pro-Tem) Chuck Allen of conflict of interest in the (U.S.) 70 bypass and the new I-795," Best said. "He did not present any facts. He had accusations that were not true. The facts that he had were way off base."

Best said he told the attorney if he wanted the facts he would be glad to meet with him.

"Our county attorney (Borden Parker) also wrote in a letter asking for the facts," Best said. "Neither one of us have heard from the lawyer. I guess he collected his fee and went back to Greene County."

Best added that several days after Hammett's comments there was a letter to the editor from Ben Rollins suggesting there might be "some inappropriate practices and conflict of interest."

Best said he invited Rollins and whomever he would like to bring to meet with him to come to discuss the matter.

"They came to my office. We talked and rode around so they could see (Best's property) for themselves," he said.

Best said the office complex he owns on William Street and a development on Patetown Road were purchased after the road map had been approved for the highway projects.

"You can see I had no input," he said.

Best said if he had had the alleged influence there would have been an interchange at the development.

As for the William Street property, Best said both he and the person he had bought it from knew some of it would have to be sold to the state for right of way for the U.S. 70.

Other commissioners, notably Bud Gray, could expect to find themselves targeted by the group, he added.

He noted that Gray and his family owned property that had been split by the highway. Because of that, Gray will have to go out of his way to get from one farm to the other -- lands that have been passed from one generation to the next, Best said.

"I call on Ben Rollins and the attorney to come and apologize to this board and it be printed in a headline in the News-Argus," Best said.

On the Wayne County School System:

"Finally, my favorite topic, schools," Best said.

Best prefaced his comments by praising the schools for the progress -- including hiring a graduation coach at Goldsboro High School -- that is being made, before calling on the community and media to hold the school board to higher standards.

"When is the local news media going to stop skirting the subject?" he asked. "When is the community going to say that a 30 percent failure rate is not acceptable? The great teachers and principals are the backbone of our system.

"The state has a 30 percent failure rate. Yet our county school board thinks that if they beat that by one percent we are doing well. I guess since we don't give a failing grade any more you have to give them a 'D.' I think it is time to tell the school board that a 30 percent failure rate is not successful. As I have said before, we have some great principals and teachers, but we have weak ones also."

Friendships and nepotism have allowed the weak teachers to remain, he said. Best also questioned why the weak teachers are paid the same as the good ones.

He also questioned why the system's smallest high school -- referring to Goldsboro High School -- has two principals.

"They must have friends in high places," he said. "Why did they make a strong principal resign because she made an honest mistake? I guess she didn't have a strong boss to defend her and tell the entire world that everybody makes honest mistakes."

Best was referring to Rosewood High School principal Susie Shepherd who resigned amid the controversy surrounding a fundraiser in which points were given out on grades for the funds raised.

"The school board has got to want help," he said. "The school board needs help. We are trying to throw them a lifeline. Please, somebody, please catch it."