01/12/14 — Smith could seek $1.4 million

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Smith could seek $1.4 million

By Steve Herring
Published in News on January 12, 2014 12:06 AM

Wayne County would owe suspended County Manager Lee Smith a $1.4 million severance package should he be fired, his lawyers say.

Possible legal action by Smith and his attorneys comes on the heels of two closed session meetings called by commissioners to consider employee performance. Commissioners have not commented on the sessions or what employee or employees they have been talking about.

The commissioners voted to suspend Smith on Friday, Jan. 3.

He has hired the law firm of Haithcock, Barfield, Hulse & Kinsey to defend his interests.

Smith was suspended with pay for unspecified reasons and without public comment.

Under the state's Open Meetings Law commissioners are not required to say why Smith was suspended. However, if there is a termination for disciplinary reasons, they do have to explain why, said North Carolina Press Association attorney Amanda Martin.

Attorney Glenn Barfield contends that the commissioners usurped Smith's authority and essentially took over the county manager's duties. He said that included making Smith step down from several important boards and not allowing him to speak to the media without permission.

Barfield said commissioners' actions have rendered Smith ineffective and that he likely cannot return to work and be effective at this point.

"The fact that they have put him on administrative leave with pay is certainly a signal that they intend at some point to terminate the contract," Barfield said Saturday.

Smith was hired as county manager on Dec. 10, 2001, and the previous Board of Commissioners approved a six-year contract with him on Jan. 1, 2012.

As of July, Smith's annual salary was $221,408.95. He also receives $12,000 annually for travel.

Provisions in Smith's contract dealing with severance appear to be in conflict, Barfield said, adding that in his opinion that means the county owes Smith a five-year severance package instead of a one-year deal.

Barfield said he does not believe Smith would seek to be compensated for the entire five years left on his contract.

"But I don't think he is going to be willing to just agree to that other provision (one year) when he has a six-year term," he added.

"We have made a suggestion about how we think this should be resolved to commissioners through Mr. (County Attorney Borden) Parker. We haven't had a direct response to that. But I think we may well in a week or two. We hope within that time frame to get it resolved. We hope they will treat Lee right."

Barfield said he could not comment on any of the proposal's specifics.

Current Commissioners Chairman Wayne Aycock has been serving as interim county manager since Smith's suspension.

Last July, Commissioner Joe Daughtery made a motion to fire Smith, saying he had lost confidence in him. It failed by a 6-1 vote.

Attempts were made to contact all of the commissioners Saturday as well as Parker.

Daughtery said he could not comment because it was a personnel matter. Commissoner John Bell also said he could not comment on the situation but that he hoped Smith could return as county manager.