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Wednesday, 11 October 2017 14:08

Spate of county resignations raises questions

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Several well-known Haywood County employees in high-ranking positions have terminated their own employment over the past few months, leading to wild conjecture that the resignations are unusual, related or nefarious in nature.

According to available information, they’re not.

“There have been a number of high-profile resignations within a short amount of time, but they’re not connected,” said Haywood County Board of Commissioners Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick, who called them a “coincidence.”

“I’ve done this almost 16 years — been through, I think, six county managers, and then department heads and employees,” Kirkpatrick said. “Turnover is unfortunate, but not unusual.”

Back in August, County Tax and Solid Waste Administrator David Francis announced that his 20-year career in Haywood County government would come to an end that month.

Days later, Haywood County Facilities and Maintenance Director Dale Burris — who’d been with the county since October 2008 — gave no formal explanation when he resigned from his $77,813 job Sept. 8, according to Haywood County Human Resources Director Kathi McClure.

On that same day, Haywood County Administrator Dona J. Stewart also resigned; she’d been employed since April 2016 in her $74,000 jack-of-all-trades position that saw her co-chair the county’s Affordable Housing Task Force, coordinate the N.C. Guard’s Operation Vigilant Catamount exercise and spearhead the removal of 137 dogs from a property in Canton along with other county personnel and a pack of volunteers.

Library Director Sharon Woodrow resigned in mid-September, and although June L. Ray is not a county employee, as the elected Clerk of the Superior Court since 1981 she has been closely associated with the county for almost four decades; Ray announced late last week that she’d be retiring at the end of the month.

Then, of course, there’s former Haywood County Manager Ira Dove.

Not much is known of Dove’s reasoning, but it’s perhaps the manner in which he resigned that has Haywood tongues wagging.

The county sent out Dove’s resignation letter the morning of Oct. 4 and surprisingly revealed Dove’s last day had been Oct. 3.

“With a heart full of thanks for those who gave their full measure of commitment to public service, I recognize the time has come for me to move onto the next chapter of my career,” Dove said in his letter.

Dove didn’t return a call for comment, and commissioners including Kirkpatrick have repeatedly deferred to Dove’s written statement, offering praise for his service, but little in the way of insight into his resignation.

His most recent salary — from a contract with the county dated June 19, 2017 — was $144,099 per year. He was also given a $600 monthly car allowance and had his cell phone bill, his professional certifications, his bar association dues and his continuing legal education credits paid for by the county.

As with other qualified county employees, Dove was also eligible for sick time, vacation time and county contributions on his behalf to the North Carolina Local Government Employees Retirement System (LGERS).

He was also eligible for a health plan and a 401k, none of which is unusual for a position such as Dove’s.

Dove’s contract, however, states that he must give “at least thirty (30) days’ notice of his intention” to terminate his own employment or face forfeiture of pay for any remaining vacation days, as well as LGERS payments and 401k payments.

As of press time, the county couldn’t say if it had received any such 30-day notice from Dove, or how much money he stands to lose if he didn’t provide sufficient notice as stipulated in the contract.

It’s also possible that Dove, like Francis, could remain on “vacation” with the county until all paid vacation has been exhausted; Francis won’t technically be gone until November.

Dove’s abrupt and unanticipated resignation — the implications of which suggest he may have left money on the table — coupled with his brand new contract and the other recent county resignations have led some to question what, if anything, this all has to do with what’s going on in Buncombe County government at the moment.

Several Asheville news outlets have reported that longtime Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene is the subject of a federal investigation; since then, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has confirmed that fact, but hasn’t said why. Greene announced her retirement May 30.

Her son, a 14-year county employee, resigned the day the federal probe was revealed, and her sister was reassigned to a lower-paying job with the county.

“It’s not connected,” Kirkpatrick said of the recent resignations in Haywood County and the investigation in Buncombe. ”I would know if it was, and it’s just not.”

A deeper look into the departures of Francis, Burris, Stewart and Ray seems to support Kirkpatrick’s assertion; although employee personnel information is usually among the most tightly guarded, several off-record sources were willing to speak on the resignations to dispel what they say are wild conspiracies born of a sheer urgency by the general public to always want to proscribe a villain.

Burris’ reason is rumored to be personal in nature, and Stewart’s is likewise rumored to be educational in nature, although she declined to comment when reached Oct. 8.

In the case of Francis, he publicly announced that it was simply time to move on, while commissioners said he’d be missed.

Ray didn’t give a reason in her statement to The Smoky Mountain News, but an email from Ray to Haywood County Democratic Party Chair Myrna Campbell confirmed that Ray would be taking a similar position for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Ray’s replacement will be decided by Superior Court Judge Brad Letts.

Little is known of Woodrow’s or Dove’s reasons for resigning, but in Dove’s case, implications that any wrongdoing occurred are dead wrong, according to Kirkpatrick.

“I can understood why people would want to make a connection between this and Buncombe County, but there’s not,” he said.

Francis concurred, calling such supposition unfair, uncalled for and just plain ludicrous.

“Ira Dove is one of the most ethical people I have ever met,” said Francis.

As an example, Francis said that Dove once received a nominal gift from a vendor that does business with the county; Dove immediately asked Francis to recommend a worthy cause to which he could donate it.

“We’ll get through this,” Kirkpatrick said, “and we’re still grateful for all the employees we currently have.”

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