Emails show county officials at odds Barber: Censure effort only highlights problem between him and Pierce

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 29, 2013

SALISBURY — As a censure investigation into County Commissioner Jon Barber rolls along, tempers have flared between county leaders, emails show.
Days after Rowan County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jim Sides asked for an investigation into whether Barber made copies for his business on the county’s copier, Vice Chairman Craig Pierce called Barber “a failure as a commissioner,” according to emails obtained by the Post.
When contacted about the emails Thursday, Barber said the board has been using the copier incident — which he said happened in January — as a way to silence him.
But after he spoke at a City Council meeting in July, Barber said, his fellow commissioners have excluded him from communication about key county issues.
Pierce denied that the censure investigation was related to the communication woes of the two commissioners.
“That has nothing to do with him and I and our communication together,” Pierce said. “He’s trying to make this out to be some type of retaliation and it’s absolutely not that at all.”
Working with Barber, Pierce said, as become more troublesome than it’s worth.
Pierce said Barber has miffed commissioners with promises to back them on projects before voting against and renouncing the projects in open session.
“It’s not impressing me,” Pierce said of Barber’s rhetoric. “The proof is in the pudding.”
An online dispute began last week after Rowan resident Dee Lazenby, an advocate for volunteer help at the county animal shelter, shot off an email to commissioners on Sept. 20, demanding a response.
“Can SOMEONE respond to my email?” Lazenby wrote. “Animals in custody and control of the county are just as important as other issues.”
Pierce responded later that evening, the emails show, and notified Lazenby that the county had met with the Animal Control department and were proceeding “in a direction that satisfies the need of the animals and the shelter.”
Pierce sent the response to Lazenby, copying Sides, County Manager Gary Page, county commissioners Chad Mitchell and Mike Caskey and Animal Control Director Clai Martin.
But in a rebuttal from Lazenby, the irked resident replied to all commissioners, including Barber.
“I apologize Ms. Lazenby but I was not included on the below email communication to the other commissioners,” Barber wrote.
Less than 20 minutes later, Pierce fired back.
“You should be more accessible and involved with the other commissioners and make yourself available for these meetings,” Pierce wrote. “Stop making excuses for your failure as a commissioner.”
When reached by phone Friday, Pierce said Barber has not been open with other board members.
“What I’m saying is on more than one occasion I have talked to Commissioner Barber and he would give me his commitment to vote a certain way, and then when it’s his time to vote he would vote a different way and come out with a completely different position,” Pierce said.
Instead of voicing concerns up front, Pierce said, Barber has disingenuously agreed with the board’s proposals.
Pierce said his approach to the board may be different than other commissioners.
“My way of doing this is if that person is not going to be truthful then just not to include them,” he said. “That way, you work on your projects and issues with the people that you can trust.”
Led by Sides, commissioners voted 4-1 to begin a censure investigation into Barber — for an incident that he said county leaders have been made aware of.
In January, Sides asked Page, the county manager, for a master key to the County Administration building.
Barber said Sides spoke to him about the copies prior to the key request.
“He brought to my attention that he was aware that I had made some personal copies,” Barber said. “He said, ‘I’m letting you know that I’m aware and that we don’t have to bring this up any further,’ and I said OK.”
But Barber said the matter didn’t end.
In fact, Barber said, Sides referenced the talk in a correspondence a few days later.
In an email from Page to the commissioners, Page said the key request was a change in policy and wanted to make everyone aware.
“Jim stated that he felt the Chairman should have a key to the building in the event of an emergency or Manager’s absence,” Page wrote. “I have given the Chairman a key, but this is a change from past policy. The master key provides complete access to the building. Let me know if you have any objections or you’re OK.”
Barber responded the following day.
“To respond to your request, I have no objections and I’m OK,” Barber wrote. “May all Commissioners also have a master key?”
Eight minutes later, Sides responded.
“I have no problem with all commissioners having a master key,” he said. “We are the elected body. If a janitor can have a master key, then we certainly should be allowed one. However, Jon, if you will remember our ‘private’ conversation last week, in light of your request, I would suggest you tread lightly on this subject.”
Sides, who has not responded to phone calls from the Post since the spring, did not return a call seeking comment.
After commissioners voted to proceed with the censure process — an avenue that needs only a majority vote from the board — Barber said he felt the board was trying to silence him based on his remarks in the Post.
In the meeting, Pierce promptly countered by saying the investigation was not tied to Barber’s often opposing opinions.
“In no way, shape or form is this retribution for Mr. Barber speaking to the press,” Pierce said.
But in a July 17 email, Pierce brought up Barber’s recent public comments at a City Council meeting.
“I’m surprised to see Commissioner Barber using his office to promote his personal agenda and business,” Pierce wrote. “Jon, maybe you should start using the copier at the Salisbury City Council instead of the county copier as you spend so much time at their Chamber. Between your abuse of supplies at the County and your insistence on not supporting our commission’s decisions, I’m not sure where you fit on this board.”
Barber referenced the July 17 email in a response following Pierce’s Sept. 20 email in which he called Barber a “failure.”
“I’m available Mr. Vice Chairman when you copy me on your email communications to the other commissioners and (when you) decide to exclude me for whatever reason on those communications,” Barber wrote.
In the email, Barber said Pierce stopped including Barber on emails after the July 17 message.
“I can’t be accessible and involved when you and others don’t allow me to be party to the communication flow,” Barber wrote. “You may call or email me at anytime. You’ve exemplified that professional skill before so it’s hard to grasp your change of heart in which Jesus wants us to exemplify joy through our hearts and anger.”
In one of his responses, Barber said he thinks the email exchanges could go beyond routine criticism of a fellow board member.
“Those emails in the private sector would be viewed as a hostile work environment,” Barber said. “In a school environment, they could be viewed as bullying. In the public sector, it could be viewed as harassment, according to the Code of Ethics section 1, paragraph 2.”
Page, the county manager, said the county’s risk manager, Yvonne Moebs, is conducting the investigation into the copier incident.
Jay Dees, the county’s attorney, said he isn’t directly involved with the investigation but said he expected it to include activity logs and other evidence.
“Number one, if there’s information that might serve as the basis for a censure, whether it’s, you know, gathered by commissioners or anyone else, there really needs to be an independent verification of the what, when, where, how and why,” Dees said.
Dees said the investigation is necessary, outside of the commissioners’ evidence.
“The board has the option to move forward with a censure for any reasons that it deems appropriate for that kind of action,” Dees said. “I’m assuming they felt that they just wanted some process that they felt would be independent and fairly comprehensive to either confirm or deny what they think to be the case.”

Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.