Community and Employee Relations Director Lisa Eby said among the first things the new county manager, Mandy Stone, had charged her with was reviewing the county’s payscale and its personnel ordinance. Eby began her presentation clarifying the difference between the budget ordinance and the personnel ordinance. As strange as it sounded, the county had actually, as Eby said, used budget ordinance amendments as a “backdoor to modify the personnel ordinance.” Mike Frue, senior staff attorney for the county, said this would be the first overhaul of the ordinance since 2012. All other changes, including mission creep and budge ordinances, would be superseded therewith.
Eby’s presentation was laudably clear, having posted a red-line version of the proposed ordinance in the staff reports. One change was the prohibition of any staff member from managing a relative or romantic liaison. She acknowledged the county is a huge employer, and Stone did have a relative who worked within the organization, but she had disclosed that, and staff felt comfortable there would be no favoritism or appearance thereof. Additionally, during a recent public comment period, a fire and rescue employee had voiced concerns about nepotism and fear of retaliation in his department.
But the elephant in the room was Stone’s predecessor, who is under federal investigation for an unspecified “law enforcement matter.” It was obvious Stone was cleaning house, making sure everything was above-board, but statements rang of a damage control whitewash. As frequent public commentator Jerry Rice put it later in the meeting, “My concern is this. There’s a lot of theory going around here with the audit committee and restructuring everything, and to me, that says that we got trouble in paradise. Right here in Buncombe County. We got a [former] county manager under investigation, and when I hear this, it makes me want my hair to stand up because, what did we miss? Where is it at?”
Putting the changes in the context of current events, Stone’s predecessor had employed several relatives. Her son resigned the same day the US Attorney’s Office confirmed a rumored investigation. He had been collecting a salary of $120,350 as the county’s business intelligence manager. The position was not refilled. Then, shortly after the son’s resignation, a sister, who had been collecting $106,051 as the county’s financial services manager, settled for downscaling her job description to “accountant,” with a salary of $76,650. This is probably what prompted Chair Brownie Newman at the end of the discussion to ask, due to a number of inquiries from the public and the press, that the county post all employee salaries online, and keep the list current.
The revised ordinance further imposed a $1000 cap on employee bonuses. Bonuses would now have to be recorded as salary and reported to the commissioners within 60 days, “so we can celebrate them,” said Eby. The final item appearing to address abuses of power that have come to light in current events was the adoption of an Employee Protection and No Retaliation Policy. It included a hotline, for employees and members of the public to anonymously report suspicious behavior to a third party, who would report it to the internal auditor for review in a safe space.
Other changes addressed early retirement incentives. Originally, they were supposed to save money as vacated positions were frozen and work was reshuffled. However, the policy was so popular, over 160 people had signed up. “It’s very hard to deal with that much subject matter expertise walking out the door,” said Eby. The county first responded by offering a retention bonus. Now, it is going to stop offering early retirement.
Other changes included shortening the waiting period for health benefits from 90 days to the end of the first full month; allowing people hired from other government bodies to transfer their accrued annual leave; and restoring a policy that allowed compassionate peers to voluntarily share leave time, not as a pool but as a one-on-one gift. The domestic partner benefits program was terminated, since gay marriage resolved the equity issues, but persons already receiving benefits will be grandfathered-in.
Commissioner Robert Pressley shared, “The changes are all positive. Since we’ve been working on this, meeting some of the county people that work here, the smiles that’s on their faces now and people not worrying. As much as we’ve got goin’ on all over the world and in the United States, we don’t need that here in the county, and I think this is going to be very big.” Newman concurred about receiving positive feedback.