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Some City Council members say more checks, balances needed

SALISBURY — As the city deals with fallout from the sudden departures of the city manager and public information director last week, top elected officials say they need more oversight going forward.
Mayor Paul Woodson and Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell said they were surprised to learn that former City Manager Doug Paris had given Elaney Hasselmann, the former public information officer, multiple pay increases in the past two years, including a $17,654 raise in 2012 and an $18,000 raise in 2013.
When she departed last week, Hasselmann’s salary was $83,845, up from $35,500 when she joined the city in 2006 as the marketing and community relations manager for the Parks and Recreation Department.
Woodson said he was also surprised to learn that Hasselmann, who quit her job the day after Paris left, received a $32,746 severance from the city. While terms of Paris’ severance, which came to $205,288, were spelled out in his contract, Hasselmann did not have a contract.
City staff would not reveal why Hasselmann received a severance even though she resigned and did not have a contract. City Clerk Myra Heard said the city cannot disclose information regarding personnel matters.
Blackwell said she could not speak to the severance package because Hasselmann reported to the city manager, not City Council.
“City Council was not consulted regarding her severance,” Blackwell said.
Woodson said he had nothing to do with Hasselmann’s severance, which he said was negotiated with interim City Manager John Sofley and Assistant City Manager Zach Kyle.
“By statute, I didn’t have the right to authorize anything like that,” Woodson said. “I could not even go into that meeting.”
Woodson said he does not know why Hasselmann got a severance.
Woodson and Blackwell said in the future, they want to know when an employee receives a large raise.
“Based on the circumstances, it’s time to review any contract that we might use for a future city manager,” Blackwell said. “It is incumbent upon us to put in some sort of checks and balances so that we are made aware of significant increases in employees’ salary or other irregularities in order to avoid being in this situation again.”
According to Paris’ contract, which cited N.C. General Statute 160A-148 governing the powers and duties of a city manager, he had the sole authority and statutory role to direct and supervise the administration of all departments, offices and agencies of the city, as well as hire, direct, assign, reassign, evaluate, suspend or remove all city officers and employees not elected. The city agreed to refrain from interfering in such statutory duties.
City Council members had to pay Paris a severance when they terminated his contract. The document, signed March 6, 2012, stated if Paris was terminated within three years, he would receive a severance including one year salary, all accrued annual leave, sick leave, vacation time, paid holidays and one year of health insurance.
(See the entire contract online at www.salisburypost.com.)
Woodson said the contract was considered standard for a city manager, but City Council “will do a lot of research before we get into that again.”
City Council named Sofley as interim city manager on June 17 after a five-hour closed session with Paris and mutual agreement to part ways.
Sofley, who earns $127,960, did not receive a raise when he was named interim city manager and has no employment contract, Woodson said. Because Paris earned $135,000, Woodson said he plans to ask City Council to pay Sofley an additional $580 per month while he serves in the position, bringing his salary up to Paris’.
Woodson said he’s in no rush to start the search for a new city manager and wants to use the money the city will save on the vacant position to refill the coffers. Woodson said he realizes the city just paid out a large sum in severances.
The total was $242,188, including Paris’ regular pay of $4,153.85 for eight days from June 9 to June 18.
“One of the reasons I want to hold off on hiring a city manager is that we need to make some money back for the taxpayers,” he said.
City Council needs to determine how to implement more cross checks when hiring a future city manager, Woodson said. While City Council has the right to hire only the city manager, “we need a little more control,” he said.
Woodson said he is hearing from many upset residents and he understands their concerns. City Council members are frustrated, work hard and want to do a good job, he said.
“We are going to have to have a lot more knowledge from any new city manager we hire about people’s salaries,” Woodson said.
Councilman Brian Miller made the motion to go into closed session on June 17. Five hours later, he made the motion to terminate Paris’ contract. Miller remains tight-lipped about the situation, saying he cannot talk about personnel issues.
City Council employs only one person, the city manager, Miller said. Council members do not have discussions about salaries or details of other people’s employment, he said.
Miller said he had no opinion about Hasselmann’s salary because he’s not familiar with salaries in that profession.
By comparison, the city of Kannapolis recently hired Annette Privette Keller as communications director with a salary of $71,250.
Privette Keller holds a master’s degree in public administration, an advanced certificate in marketing and a certificate in municipal administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government. She was the communications director for the town of Matthews and previously worked in communications for the Mooresville Graded School District, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District and the city of Concord. Miller said he could not comment about Hasselmann’s severance or whether City Council should receive more information from a future city manager about raises and promotions.
The departures were not anticipated or expected, Miller said, and City Council has not had the chance to talk about what should happen going forward.
Miller said he expects those conversations to take place in the next two to three months and would like to have a new city manager in place before City Council’s annual strategic planning retreat in February.
Council members Karen Alexander and Pete Kennedy could not be reached for comment.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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