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Budget review figured in county manager’s dismissal

Last updated: August 28. 2013 11:15AM - 3834 Views
Dylan Lightfoot Staff Writer dlightfoot@civitasmedia.com

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The Ashe County Board of Commissioners convened a special meeting Monday “to discuss personnel issues and issues surrounding commissioner conduct” relating to former County Manager Dr. Pat Mitchell’s Aug. 20 resignation.

With approximately 30 Ashe Countians in attendance for a meeting that lasted less than 10 minutes, Commissioner Gary Roark began with a motion to terminate Mitchell’s appointment as county manager and director of economic development effective 10 a.m. Aug. 26.

Commissioners Judy Poe and Gerald Price voted with Roark, with Chairman Larry Rhodes dissenting in a 3-1 decision.

Commissioner William Sands, who last Monday joined Rhodes in opposing Mitchell’s dismissal, was absent yesterday for medical reasons, but was able to listen to the proceedings by phone.

After the motion terminating Mitchell’s appointment, Poe commented on criticism of last week’s decision from within county government.

“I know there’s been rumors been going around all over the courthouse (that) county employees are going to stage a sit-in, that they’re going to protest this,” said Poe.

“To the county employees I say, you have jobs. There’s thousands of Ashe County people here that would be glad to put in an application for anybody that wants to quit,” she said.

Unfinished business

According to yesterday’s motion for her termination, Mitchell “will not receive compensation for vacation, sick leave, comp time, overtime or any other monies possibly due her” until expenses she may have incurred after 8 a.m. Aug. 20 are reported.

After resigning Aug. 20, Mitchell drove her county vehicle to Raleigh to keep two appointments, according to an Aug. 21 letter to Rhodes giving details of the trip.

The board’s request for an expense report spoke to the confusion regarding the wording of Mitchell’s dismissal, which Price re-read Monday for clarity: “(That) the County Manager be dismissed unless she submits her resignation by 8 am Aug. 20, 2013. In either event she would be compensated through the end of the month and will receive benefits as entitled, and she will turn in all county equipment/property by 5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23.”

“I thought we had covered this pretty well in our last meeting, but apparently some people decided to take their own interpretation,” Poe said.

Mitchell wrote in her letter to Rhodes that she met with “the economic development attorney representing Ashe County in the GE expansion project.” She then went to the “soon-to-be-closed (N.C.) Rural Center” to ensure that a $500,000 building grant for the GE project would remain obligated to Ashe County.

Mitchell wrote that she understood she had “use of all, assigned county property until (5 p.m. Friday Aug. 23).”

‘Contempt’ for the board?

No misconduct by Mitchell was discussed at Monday’s meeting.

When asked why she believes she was dismissed, Mitchell said, “Judy Poe and I had a very good and an effective working relationship for a long time. We did some good work together….But the relationship recently changed and I don’t know why.”

Poe explained in an email to the Jefferson Post on Monday that Mitchell had shown “contempt” for the board.

“How the letter of the resignation from the former county manager, subsequent notification of the resignation of the assistant director of economical development were first given to news media instead of full board of commissioners, and how the economical development community was notified of her dismissal, shows the contempt that the former county manager had for the full board of commissioners. The same board which were her employers,” Poe wrote.

According to Mitchell, things began to go wrong when the commissioners began discussing review of the county’s budget for fiscal year 2013-14.

Budget concerns

Approved June 18 in a split decision, with Price and Roark opposed, the budget was projected to appropriate $3 million from the county’s fund balance.

During their Aug. 5 meeting, the board moved to revisit the budget, citing the Gates closing and the need to control costs. Mitchell said that, while state law prevented redrafting an approved county budget, amendments could be made.

Mitchell later scheduled an all-day budget review session for Aug. 20.

After an Aug. 13 economic development presentation by Appalachian State faculty at Jefferson Landing, Mitchell said she heard “concern from members of the business community about talk of a budget review, and why (the commissioners) were doing that just six weeks after adopting the budget.”

Thursday, Aug. 15, Mitchell spoke individually with Rhodes, Sanda and Poe to discuss their concerns about the budget. Requests for meetings with Roark and Price that day were not answered, she said.

Commissioners’ budget concerns were the topic of an Aug. 16 Ashe Mountain Times article, with Poe and Sands discussing possible cuts to county employee compensation and benefit structure.

Saturday, Aug. 17, Mitchell was added to an email discussion, begun on or about July 27, in which commissioners were considering various budget cuts via their private email accounts.

In the emails, a hiring freeze, merit-based vs automatic pay raises, and changes to funding of county employees’ IRAs were discussed, with Poe writing, “If we are going to start cutting back, we can start now, instead of waiting. The things I outlined can be done now.”

Mitchell responded, “The media has shown considerable interest in…the budget review. I don’t want to see the board criticized or questioned about ‘policy actions through emails.’”

“With that in mind, I will place the budget review on the (2 p.m.) agenda tomorrow for discussion,” Mitchell wrote. “(The board), by consensus, can give me directions on how to proceed.”

‘A straight answer’

According to Mitchell, she spoke with Rhodes by phone, and had one-on-one meetings with Sands and Poe Thursday Aug. 15.

Of her talks with commissioners four days before her dismissal, Mitchell said, “I was not getting a sense from (Rhodes) that we needed to do a budget review. (Sands) appeared to be upset that the community felt (the budget review) made the board appear unstable.”

In an Aug. 26 email to the Jefferson Post, Sands said “I do not feel we should go back and review the already approved budget,” adding that he did favor a hiring freeze, with manager review in cases of special need.

After meeting with Rhodes and Sands, Mitchell met with Poe.

“I shared with her what I heard as concerns from the community asking ‘what are the commissioners doing?’” Mitchell said. “They had just passed a budget that was $200,000 more than what I recommended.”

“I also tried to determine exactly what they wanted in review (but) could not get a straight answer about what they really wanted,” she said.

In an email to the Jefferson Post yesterday, Poe said of the meeting, “Mitchell asked me what my concerns about budget (expenses) were since I was the only commissioner that had any issues. I assured her that I was not the only one.”

“She also ask me why other commissioners were talking to me…is it not the role of…the vice chair to address concerns of other board members?” Poe said.

At yesterday’s special meeting, Poe dismissed concern over budget review discussion, saying, “The only thing that we had talked about was…looking at the budget, not changing the budget. We know we cannot change the budget.”

“All the rumors flying around about the budget, and the commissioners are in political jeopardy, we’re in chaos, we’re in turmoil — I don’t know why anyone gets pleasure out of spreading such rumors as this around the county,” Poe said.

Update: Mitchell Aug. 27 paid the county $45 gasoline expense for her Aug. 20 trip to Raleigh.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited from its original version, which incorrectly dated the county manager’s discussions with commissioners Sunday, Aug. 18. These conversations took place Thursday, Aug. 15.

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