Supporters criticize decision to fire parks and rec program manager

  • Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 1:17 a.m.

SALISBURY — Friends of Jeff Holshouser told City Council on Tuesday they were ashamed of the way the city treated the former Parks and Recreation Department program manager and thought it was wrong to fire him.

Holshouser and his boss, former parks and rec Director Gail Elder White, lost their jobs May 8 when City Manager Doug Paris eliminated their positions and consolidated management of the department under Assistant City Manager Zach Kyle.

“Amazingly, the lowest point in this nightmare was not that a diligent and accomplished employee lost his job, but the shameless attack on his reputation that followed,” said Scott Snider, reading from a statement. “… If the termination was to consolidate costs, then why attack the reputation of this dedicated and earnest civil servant.”

In termination letters to Holshouser and White, Paris cited “unsatisfactory results in efficiency, effectiveness and revenue generation.”

When asked by the Post for more details, Paris said parks and rec had been inflating participant numbers for years.

Snider said he was “profoundly disappointed by the lack of common respect publicly displayed” by Paris.

Russell Rollins said he has coached for Holshouser for eight years. Holshouser’s programs were organized and drew many participants, Rollins said, and Holshouser is well-liked and well-respected in the community.

“You couldn’t ask for a better person than Jeff,” Rollins said.

While working for Food Lion for more than 25 years, Rollins said he has witnessed three layoffs to cut costs.

“But each time, the people let go were treated with dignity and respect,” he said. “I’m very ashamed of the city of Salisbury for how they treated Jeff.”

Mark Jennings said City Council, which has operated professionally in the past, should hold Paris accountable for firing Holshouser. Jennings asked council members if they support Paris’ decision and the way city employees have been treated.

After Holshouser and White lost their jobs, former City Engineer Dan Mikkelson told the Post that Paris asked him to retire last month, and after an hour-long meeting, he agreed. Paris denied asking Mikkelson to leave.

In a statement to the Post after the City Council meeting, Paris stood by his decision to fire Holshouser and White and eliminate their positions. He did not back down from his assertion that parks and rec was inflating participation numbers.

“The decision is final. We have moved forward,” Paris said. “New departmental leadership is now in place, and they are currently developing a plan to begin achieving revenue goals and accurately measure participation.”

Paris said Kyle is the new leadership.

Paris said as the city manager, he is sometimes required “to make a decision for the benefit of the organization that some in the community may disagree with.”

During the meeting, Mayor Paul Woodson said he appreciated the comments, but City Council does not become involved with personnel matters.

“City Council is like the board of directors of the city,” Woodson said.

Council members set direction and goals, but they rely on Paris and his management team to carry them out, he said. Managing employees is not City Council’s job, he said.

“We do not get into personnel issues,” Woodson said.

He welcomed anyone to meet with him personally about Holshouser’s job termination.

Holshouser and White have defended the way they tallied parks and rec participation. Holshouser said no one ever told him he was doing it wrong, and White said the city’s financial services team helped her come up with the measurements five years ago.

Paris has emphasized that participation was not the reason he fired White and Holshouser. He said he would have cut their jobs regardless, to trim $240,000 in administrative costs and redeploy that money for parks and rec improvements.

The UNC School of Government professor in charge of a new parks and rec benchmark project said Salisbury’s participation numbers are “abnormally high,” while the department’s cost recovery is low — second to last of seven cities, so far. Dr. Dale Roenigk said he won’t know why until he meets with parks and rec directors from all cities in the program to see how data were defined and collected.

After the City Council meeting, one of Holshouser’s supporters said it was ironic that immediately after the comments about Holshouser’s termination, Woodson announced that parks and rec will host the first “Movies in the Park” event, a free screening of “Brave” at 8 p.m. May 31 at City Park Friday.

The event was Holshouser’s idea, the supporter said.

While some members of his family were at the City Council meeting, Holshouser was unable to attend because he had back surgery the day after he lost his job, his wife said.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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