Assistant county manager taken off agenda riles audience Monday

Published 7:24 pm Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A packed county commissioner’s meeting room was aghast when the board removed the consideration of adding an assistant county manager position during its meeting Monday, Feb. 17.

Commissioner chair Ted Owens told the audience if they hadn’t heard, Polk County Interim County Manager Marche Pittman had a very serious accident Monday morning.

“He is ok, thank the Lord,” said Owens. “He is home. Very sore and recovering.”

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Owens asked everyone to keep Pittman in their prayers.

When asked if those who had signed up to speak on the agenda item could still speak, Owens said not on that agenda item because the item is not on the table.

From the audience Judy Heinrich said, “Are you saying that position is only relative to Marche Pittman? That’s kind of what it sounds like.”

Owens said the personnel policy states the interim county manager proposes a position and Pittman was the one to make the formal presentation Monday.

“If it comes up again, you’ll be free to make a comment at that time,” said Owens. “Fair enough?”

Some audience members yelled out “no.”

Audience members were allowed to speak on the assistant county manager position if they also signed up for comments on non-agenda items with one speaking against the position and one speaking for the position. A couple residents said they would hold their comments for when/if the consideration of the position comes up later. Commissioners have not said publicly they are considering the positions specifically for Pittman nor whether or not they plan to advertise the position if it’s created.

Resident Renée McDermott said the board majority’s sudden creation of a position of assistant county manager just when and not until county manager Ryan Whitson announced that he will be returning from active Army deployment is the clearest example of featherbedding that she can imagine.

She said about three years ago the board discussed with Whitson the possibility of having an assistant county manager and Whitson said that it wasn’t necessary, would be too expensive and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

“So I’m having a very hard time believing that Ryan Whitson’s true feelings are those stated in Mr. Pittman’s letter to the commissioners in the board packet,” McDermott said. “It would be a complete change of direction.”

She continued to say based on her experience as a former county commissioner she does not believe the position is necessary or justified in Polk County, certainly not full-time.

“And what a salary you have in mind,” McDermott said. “A little bit of math shows that the annual compensation of the proposed assistant county manager would be nearly $100,000, including benefits, but not including a car. That’s awfully rich by Polk County standards. How many times would you have to multiply the average county employees’ salary to get that number?”

McDermott also said the board repeatedly hassaid the county does not have the money to fund a child welfare services position that was cut a couple of years ago and that position would cost far less than the $100,000 assistant manager position, especially since the state will fund half of it.

“How can you say, for nearly a year now, that you can’t possibly find the funds for the child welfare position, yet can immediately find $100,000 for the unnecessary assistant manager position…for featherbedding?” McDermott asked. “No money for abused, hurting children, but a pot of gold for a crony. How, in God’s name, can you justify that?”

But resident Scott Woodworth thanked commissioners for doing their job. He said he appreciates the hard work, time commissioners put into the work and many times without a thank you. In regard to Pittman, or anybody else who becomes an assistant county manager, Woodworth said, like today, who is going to take his place?

“You’ve got a fire chief, an assistant fire chief,” Woodworth said; “a principal, an assistant principal. It’s not new to have an assistant.”

Woodworth also said if the county creates the position commissioners should look at it in a very fair way and find who is best qualified, but without asking for recommendations Pittman has already shown his input into the system here.

Resident Virginia Walker signed up to speak on the assistant county manager position but did not sign up to speak on non-agenda items, so wasn’t allowed to speak during the meeting. Walker told the Bulletin following the meeting that she wonders if a new assistant county manager would get another office, will that eventually mea that position will need its own secretary or another car.

“In other words this could amount to many more bucks,” said Walker. “I can see it just multiplying. It doesn’t stop. The amount of money they (are talking about) spending is ridiculous.”

When the agenda was being approved at the beginning of the meeting, commissioner Ray Gasperson objected because others wanted to add a closed session for personnel matters.

Gasperson said he spoke to Frayda Bluestein, an open meetings expert at the N.C. Institute of Government, who confirmed that closed sessions relating to creating a new position is not covered in reasons for a closed session. Gasperson did say because the county attorney was present during the last two closed sessions it was improper but not illegal. Gasperson said the county should wait for county manager Whitson to return from U.S. Army Reserve duty (slated for March 10) for any further action related to personnel matters.

McDermott said discussing creating a new position in closed session is illegal.

“This assistant county manager proposal is coming before your board tonight apparently fully formed,” McDermott said.

She asked how that could have happened without any prior meetings? County business just doesn’t work that way; it’s just not that efficient, she said.

McDermott continued by saying as in previous times, the board will wait for her to sit down, then one or more of the majority will contradict her. Then they will ask the attorney if there was anything illegal about what they’ve done and the attorney will assure that, no, they can go into closed session for “attorney client privilege.

“In fact, closed sessions don’t allow commissioners to use their attorney to launder discussions that would be illegal if there were no attorney present,” said McDermott. “The open meetings statute states unequivocally that ‘general policy matters may not be discussed in a closed session and nothing…shall be construed to permit a public body to close a meeting that otherwise would be open merely because an attorney…is a participant.’”

McDermott asked commissioners if they want to admit that they were creating this assistant county manager position solely for their friend and that there has never been any consideration of having competition for the position to attract those best qualified.

“Is it just the way you’re ‘taking care’ of Mr. Pittman, as you promised to do when you chose him as interim manager, without any advertising or competition for that position either?” McDermott asked.

At the close of the meeting commissioner Tom Pack said the board gets accused of a lot of things, but they try to be open.

Owens said the conversation tonight has been that the county is going to create this new position.

“That’s not a done deal until the vote is in,” said Owens. “It may never be done. Some of you made comments like we were going to do it, but that’s not necessarily true. If the subject comes up again you are welcome to come back and comment.”

Also added to the agenda was the appointment of Owens as an interim county manager to serve the duties of Pittman until he has recovered and returns.

Owens said it’s simply a matter of someone being able to sign papers and for no county matters to be held up until Pittman returns.

Commissioners made no decisions once they returned from closed session regarding a personnel matter.