Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said March 13 that the board was considering how, when and if they would be conducting an investigation into who leaked confidential information concerning Matthews and other employees.
“If I were them, I’d like to know,” Matthews said.
At some point prior to Feb. 10, The Mountaineer newspaper received a copy of the results of a county-commissioned independent investigation into a workplace complaint involving Matthews, who has clashed with commissioners since before he even took office.
Although the original complaint was not substantiated, a host of allegations regarding Matthews’ workplace conduct were included in the report, from which excerpts were published just as commissioners were considering a resolution to change Matthews’ position from elected to appointed.
The report has still not been made public, despite repeated requests by The Smoky Mountain News. The county maintains that it contains sensitive personnel information that is exempt from disclosure under N.C. General Statutes, which state in part that some information in an employee’s personnel file is not public information.
Furthermore, Haywood County’s Personnel Policy Manual, adopted in December 2013, cautions against “releasing or using confidential information of others, including but not limited to: data, passwords, codes, Social Security numbers or any other information which was not intended for public knowledge.”
The manual goes on to state that any public official or county employee “who knowingly and willfully permits any person to have access to any confidential information contained in an employee personnel file, except as expressly authorized by the designated custodian, may be judged guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction be fined an amount not to exceed five hundred dollars ($500.00).”
Although it’s possible that the report was given to the newspaper by someone other than a public official or county employee, it’s not exactly plausible.
Few in county administration would have access to such a document in the first place. That leaves what is likely a small pool of people within county government as potential culprits who may be in violation not only of county policy but also of state law.
“We are dealing with that in closed session,” said Chairman Kirkpatrick.
More specifically, Kirkpatrick pointed out nuances in the law governing Matthews’ privacy rights as an elected official, which are generally less than those of private individuals, and said that he and commissioners were waiting for more information before being able to move forward with a full-on inquiry.
Kirkpatrick couldn’t elaborate further on the closed session discussions, but said he hoped more information on any potential investigation would be forthcoming.
When asked in mid-February, County Manager Ira Dove and County Attorney Chip Killian said that they work at the discretion of the board, and thus hadn’t yet taken unilateral action on the matter themselves.