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Wednesday, 18 January 2006 00:00

There were valid reasons for Horton’s departure

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(Editor’s note: Haywood County Manager Jack Horton tendered his resignation to the board of commissioners on Jan. 3. The three commissioners who wrote this letter supported his resignation.)

This letter to the citizens of Haywood County sets forth our views of events that led to the resignation of former county manager Jack Horton.

We readily acknowledge that Mr. Horton made many positive contributions to Haywood County during his 15 years on the job. That’s what he was paid to do. Unfortunately, several things he did, some he failed to do, and lapses in judgment and candor resulted in a steady erosion of our trust in him. That loss of trust eventually reached the point that we believed it was in the best interest of everyone involved, particularly our taxpayers, to go our separate ways. It was not an easy thing to do and we took no pleasure in it. But it had to be done.

We tried to address Mr. Horton’s performance deficiencies on a number of occasions through discussions following performance evaluations and during closed sessions. We re-structured his job description to more clearly define the board’s expectations. In the end we were unsuccessful.

Examples that led us to lose trust include expending funds not authorized by the board, failing to advise board members of certain meetings despite being instructed to do so, failing to conduct himself professionally during negotiations of an EDC matter that could have resulted in the loss of 50 or more jobs in Haywood County, failing on several occasions to advise the board of events and circumstances we clearly needed to know, disagreeing to the point of being argumentative regarding a flood relief plan to help local businesses, failing to protect county appropriations by not ensuring that required audits were conducted and providing an untrue account of that fact when questioned, failing to keep accurate minutes of closed session meetings, and providing information of questionable accuracy to the board.

The controversy involving the Smoky Mountain Development Corporation (SMDC) was the latest in a series of actions that led to the resignation, and is a good example of the problem. Mr. Horton, by his own admission, knew the desires of the board regarding this matter, but voted differently. Perhaps of greatest concern is the fact that he failed to advise the board that he was a voting member in the first place, despite public discussion at two board meetings in December 2005. The video of the meetings and transcripts reveal he remained totally silent. His only explanation was that he didn’t advise the board because he wasn’t “required” to do so. We disagree, and wonder what else we weren’t told.

We understand some people will have a hard time accepting our decision. We know it can be difficult separating job performance issues from friendships, social interactions and civic and church affiliations. That is a fact of life in small towns, and it can make our jobs harder. But we cannot rationalize or excuse conduct based on these factors.

Our county manager should always put Haywood County first, avoid conflicts of interest, and exercise fiduciary responsibility as caretaker of the public good. We believe he failed too often.

So, what about the contract settlement? Some have said he received too much money. We agree, but were between a rock and a hard place. The employment contract written and approved by the Jim Stevens board in 1999 was, in our view, for the exclusive protection and benefit of Mr. Horton. There was no protection for the taxpayer whatsoever. He had a “rollover” clause that resulted in a continuous 4-year obligation to Haywood County, and a guaranteed lump sum payment if terminated for any reason, including just cause. We did manage to have the rollover clause amended but were unable to make other changes. We were told that to contest the contract in court could cost up to $100,000 in legal fees with no guarantee of victory.

So we added up the numbers: A loss in court, due to the one-sided contract approved in 1999, plus legal costs could total $450,000. So we settled on an amount of $175,000 and medical insurance for 18 months. It was never our intent to leave Mr. Horton without medical insurance and a fair settlement. After 15 years that would have been wrong. That’s what happened.

We now close this chapter and begin the process of finding a new county manager. We will involve taxpayers, including county employees, in this process by asking for your opinions of what kind of man or woman you would like in this job. We want to know what qualities are most important to you.

We are performing our duties with your best interests at heart. We will continue to be an engaged board that looks after your interests, double checks the facts, asks hard questions, demands accountability, and is not a rubber stamp.

Some have suggested that Horton’s removal is some sort of conspiracy. We know that is not true. Mr. Horton made his own bed — we would not be where we are today if not for his actions and failures. In order for our board to be effective, we must have timely, truthful and accurate information upon which to base our decisions. Public employees have an obligation to provide such information in a good faith manner. When they don’t, we all lose.

Haywood County Commission Chairman Mark Swanger
Commissioner Mary Ann Enloe
Commissioner Kevin Ensley

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