To Vida Cody, Dec. 6 didn’t seem unlike any other average Monday. She was the finance manager for Swain County, and with the new board of commissioners due for a swearing in, she expected an hour-long pause in her otherwise-busy day.
So when the usually routine appointment for finance manager was called and no nominations came, Cody was a little surprised. As the silence lengthened, a call for alternate nominations was made. A motion to appoint County Manager Kevin King interim finance manager was given, seconded and quickly ushered through unanimously.
Cody, a 14-year county employee who has spent the last three as finance manager, said she didn’t see it coming — especially since the county was coming off one of its best audit years in a while.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Cody said. “I just kind of had to get up and walk off because I thought, ‘did I just lose my job?’”
As it transpired, she had. The finance manager is one of several positions that serve at the pleasure of the board, and a new board can choose to reappoint those holding those jobs or, as in Cody’s case, not do so. No explanation or reason is required.
Cody, however, said that she was sacked for a very specific reason: campaigning during this November’s election.
After her initial departure, Cody said County Manager King gave her a letter from the law firm Melrose, Seago and Lay that gave a detailed review of the county’s personnel policy for campaign-related issues. Kim Lay is the county’s attorney.
Lay, the attorney who drafted and signed the letter, stated that “while current policy does not expressly prohibit employees from campaigning for candidates on their own time, it does require the employees to act appropriately and professionally in such campaigning, even on their own time,” and that county staff should not “openly campaign for anyone in a way that would negatively impact the relationship between the current Commissioners and the public in general. “
The campaigning in question was, apparently, a magnetic bumper sticker supporting Hester Sitton for clerk of court and Johnny Ensley against incumbent sheriff Curtis Cochran, and a trip taken to the Almond polling precinct on Election Day, which Cody took off. She set up shop with her pick-up truck and signs promoting Ensley, but said she didn’t approach anyone.
When King handed her the letter, Cody said, he told her it was the reason behind her dismissal.
“He said, ‘if you want a reason, this is the reason you weren’t reappointed,’” Cody said.
She, however, doesn’t agree with the assessment and intends to file a lawsuit claiming that her constitutional rights were violated.
“I was just insulted,” Cody said. “How can you tell me that I am not allowed to campaign for somebody off work time?”
Government workers are, however, often subject to more restrictions and scrutiny in election season. Swain County has no explicit policy against off-work campaigning like many states, and it has nothing similar to the Hatch Act that forbids a lot of partisan activity among federal employees. A memo was circulated, however, encouraging employees to use caution with their election-time activities.
Officially, the separation letter given to Cody cites only the statute that outlines the at-will nature of the finance manager’s position; the officer serves – or doesn’t – at the board’s discretion.
County officials acknowledged giving Cody both that letter and the letter from Kimberly Lay, but stopped short of saying that politics was the impetus for her ousting.
County commissioner David Monteith said that the decision not to reappoint Cody wasn’t discussed by incoming commissioners beforehand and wasn’t a retributory attack.
“I just chose not to make a motion or a second,” said Monteith. “Evidently everybody else chose to do the same thing. It was nothing personal.”
Monteith said they haven’t yet discussed appointing a new finance manager and are relying on King to fill the gap until the can make a decision going forward. King once held the finance manager’s position in Swain County.
Cody, meanwhile, has found a lawyer and is looking for a new job. When asked for her take on the ideal outcome of the pending suit, she confesses uncertainty about even wanting her job back.
“Are they going to do it again?” Cody wondered. “If you put me in a position and the next election comes up, are you going to fire me again? I don’t want to be scared all the time that I’m going to lose my job because I want to support someone.”