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Mayor defends City Council against criticism

SALISBURY — During their first regular meeting since the sudden departure of former City Manager Doug Paris and former public information director Elaney Hasselmann, City Council members heard from two residents who criticized their lack of oversight and one who said they will learn from their mistakes.
The city has paid nearly a quarter million dollars in severances to Paris and Hasselmann. Council members say state law prevents them from divulging why they terminated Paris’ contract by mutual agreement and prevents city administrators from explaining why Hasselmann received a severance, although she quit and did not have a contract.
Williams Peoples, who ran for City Council in 2013 and lost, accused council members on Tuesday of dereliction of duty in supervising their one employee, the city manager.
“Somebody went to sleep on the job,” Peoples said. “No matter what you say or whether you try to sweep it under the rug or forget about it or whatever, it’s your responsibility.”
While Paris gave promotions and large raises to certain members of his management team without telling the public or City Council, the “little guys” — police officers, firefighters, street and sanitation workers — went without, Peoples said.
“This is an outrage,” he said.
Peoples called for an investigation by the N.C. Attorney General into human resources irregularities including the recently discovered pay hikes and what he called past violations of city personnel policy.
J.R. Dunkley said he was appalled by City Council’s management of the city manager and finances.
“Your one employee obviously did not have checks and balances,” Dunkley said. “He was able to do whatever he wanted to do, and I don’t know where you were in the process.”
The council gave Paris a “no cut contract” and too much authority for a 27-year-old, he said.
Dunkley said in his industry, “taking a young engineer and making him a plant manager and saying, ‘Go at it,’ nothing but disaster happens.”
After the meeting, Mayor Paul Woodson told Dunkley that he was a young engineer who was named plant manager when he was 26 years old.
Dunkley said Woodson must have been the exception.
The city violated its own personnel policy by giving Hasselmann a severance, Dunkley said. Her $32,746 payout included annual leave, health insurance and four months’ salary, although city policy states that an employee who quits without giving notice will receive only pay for time worked.
Since 2011, the city has paid $519,991 in raises and severances, according to Dunkley’s calculations based on public records. While Hasselmann’s salary increased more than 300 percent during her seven-year career with the city, the fire chief and police chief have received raises of 3.3 percent since 2011, Dunkley said.
“Now I don’t know where you are in the process in managing this, but that’s totally unacceptable in the world that I understand,” he said.
Dunkley also questioned why the city has a contract employee, Mike Jury, running Fibrant and why Paris gave him a cost of living increase in 2013.
Tony Hoty, however, defended City Council members and said they do not have an easy job.
“We are taught to learn from our mistakes,” Hoty said. “Everybody makes them, sometimes you inherit them. I have confidence in this council that this city will learn and grow and improve, working through the mistakes because that’s what life is all about.”
Hoty said he has the “utmost confidence” in council members because they spend so much time doing their best for the city. He predicted the city will continue to improve.
“There will be bumps and more mistakes and it’s a learning process, because the world is changing,” Hoty said. “I don’t know how you keep up with half the stuff that you have to be an expert on to sit where you are and represent the city.”
Peoples told council members to share more information about the departures of Paris and Hasselmann and asked how the city would recoup the money paid out in severances.
After the meeting, Woodson said City Council will refill the coffers by delaying the search for a new city manager.
“Let’s face it folks, truthfully, we gave out a lot of severance pay, we need to get that back to the taxpayers,” he said.
A salary and benefits package for a new city manager would cost about $200,000, Woodson said. The city paid about $242,000 to Paris and Hasselmann.
“We’re going to try to make sure that this severance money that was paid is returned to the taxpayers,” Woodson said.
Woodson read a statement to explain why City Council could not talk about the former employees. Council members know some people feel like the city has been less than forthcoming, he said.
“I assure those who feel that way that no one is trying to hide anything or trying to be inappropriately secretive about these employees’ departures,” he said.
State personnel and public records laws prevent City Council members from talking about the situation, Woodson said.
“It’s the law folks, and that’s what we have to abide by,” he said.
Woodson pledged that City Council “will work even harder to make sure our city keeps progressing” and said “we’re going to be as open as we possibly can.”
Woodson said he has confidence in interim City Manager John Sofley, who has been with the city for more than 20 years and knows the city “backwards and forwards.”
In response to concerns about a lack of oversight, Woodson said he will meet regularly with Sofley “to make sure our city does progress properly.”
Woodson also said he, Sofley, council members and City Clerk Myra Heard will begin making plans.
“We definitely will be looking at all matters the citizens today were concerned about,” he said. “… We’re obviously going to formulate some plans for ourselves, and we’re going to start that immediately.”
Woodson said he could not discuss what kind of plans but would be able to say more at the next City Council meeting.
A week after Paris and Hasselmann left, Woodson and Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell said City Council needs more oversight going forward. In the future, they want to know when an employee receives a large raise, they 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,” Blackwell said at the time.
City Council is limited by state law governing Salisbury’s council-manager form of government, Woodson said Tuesday. Council must work through the city manager, he said.
“I personally and my council would love to have more input on daily operations. The law doesn’t allow it since 1927,” he said. “… We’re not allowed to do it, so we’re just going to try to put some things in place to make sure things like this don’t go forward.”
Woodson also said he wanted to quell rumors that the city is broke. In three years, the city has gone from a fund balance of 12 percent to 24 percent and has more than $5 million in the account now, he said.
Woodson reiterated that Fibrant has 3,000 customers and recently signed up its first customer for gigabit Internet speeds.
Fibrant is not profitable yet “but we’re breaking even. We’ve come a long way in three years,” Woodson said. “We were losing several million dollars a year previously.”
Woodson said Jury helped turn Fibrant around.
Woodson did not mention Paris, but the former city manager has been credited with improving the city’s fund balance and rescuing Fibrant.
“The city is doing some good things, folks,” Woodson said. “I just want to make sure people know.”

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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