01/22/14 — County eyeing acting 'boss'

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County eyeing acting 'boss'

By Steve Herring
Published in News on January 22, 2014 1:46 PM

Wayne County commissioners could soon be poised to name an acting county manager while they are deciding what to do with suspended County Manager Lee Smith. But for now, commissioners aren't talking about what the search involves or how soon an appointment might be made.

Nor are they saying whether or not the appointment will be made from among current county employees.

Smith was suspended with pay for unspecified reasons and without public discussion on Jan. 3 following a two-and-a-half-hour closed-door session.

Commission Chairman Wayne Aycock has been acting county manager since Dec. 17  following a two-hour closed session called for the attorney-client privilege exception in the state's Open Meetings Law.

There was no discussion about Aycock's appointment, but Aycock did say that Smith had asked for some time off.

Smith's status had not changed and he remains on administrative leave with pay, Aycock said following Tuesday's board session.

"All we are doing is looking," Aycock said. "I can't say whether we are looking inside, outside (the county). I am not fulfilling my duties as chairman because of the time I am having to put in doing paperwork and staying with the staff, running the day-to-day operations of the county.

"I am here every day, not all day. I still have a business to run on my own. I have to take a couple of hours in the morning to take care of that."

Aycock said the staff has "bent over backwards" to help him "get through this."

"As far as what we are going to do yet as a board, we are still trying to iron this out and make the right decision for Wayne County," he said. "But as far as me going into detail on anything right now, I am not at liberty."

There is no search committee, Aycock said.

"I am dealing with Mr. (Borden) Parker (county attorney) and that is basically all that I can say," Aycock said. "I can't elaborate a whole lot on what we are doing other than we want to move forward and do what is best for the county and for Lee."

Aycock said he does not know how soon an acting manager could be named.

"I had told the board I would fill this position for a short time, and now it has been going on for about three weeks, and we have got to move forward," he said.

The search for an acting county manager was first mentioned by Commissioner Joe Daughtery in the final minutes of Tuesday's marathon seven-hour meeting.

"We have accomplished a lot, but the big gorilla in the room is this, and I am going to broach the subject," Daughtery said. "Today our jobs were detailed, and our meeting is lengthened, because we have the absence of a county manager.

"I am going to address this. I think that we, as a board, are going to have to, in the short run, address an interim county manager and the sooner the better."

The board needs to act because Wayne County government has 1,100 employees and numerous departments, he said.

"There needs to be a steady hand at the helm," Daughtery said. "I am not saying that our chairman is not, but he did not take on that job as county manager.

"I think we, as a board, are going to have to address this issue. So I open up the conversation in regards to having us make some decision in regards to an interim county manager."

Daughtery later corrected himself saying he had meant to say "acting" instead of "interim."

"We are working on resolving getting me some help," Aycock told the board. "That is the only comment I am going to make today -- we are working on it."

None of the other commissioners commented.

The Jan. 3 vote to suspend Smith was 6-1. Commissioner John Bell voted no.

The state's Open Meeting Law does not require that commissioners provide a reason for the suspension. However, if there is a termination for disciplinary reasons, commissioners do have to provide the "why," said Amanda Martin, attorney for the North Carolina Press Association.

Smith did not attend the Jan. 3 meeting, and told the News-Argus he had not been officially notified of the meeting.

Smith has hired attorneys with the law firm of Haithcock, Barfield, Hulse & Kinsey to represent him.

Attorney Glenn Barfield said that the board's Jan. 3 action is "certainly a signal" that commissioners plan to fire Smith.

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. Commissioner Steve Keen voted against the length, saying he preferred an annual contract.

As of July 1, 2013, the start of the county's 2013-14 fiscal year, his annual salary was $221,408.95. He also receives $12,000 annually for travel.

Wayne County would owe Smith a $1.4 million severance package if he is fired, Barfield said in an earlier interview.

Two provisions in Smith's contract dealing with a severance package appear to be in conflict and such ambiguity is normally resolved in favor of the person who did not draw the contract, in this case Smith, Barfield said.

Barfield said that in his opinion that means the county would owe Smith a five-year, or around a $1.4 million,  severance package, instead of a one-year severance package of more than $220,000.

Barfield said he did not think Smith would seek the full five years.

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

Barfield said he could not comment on any specifics.