Did Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones and his staff exceed their authority when they decided to pay former mental health director Grayce Crockett a settlement of more than $60,000?
And were they open and honest enough with the public, the press and the board of county commissioners?
The board plans to discuss those questions in a closed meeting with Jones Tuesday evening.
"I need to understand if Harry had the authority to make this decision," said commissioner Karen Bentley. "If he didn't, what are the consequences?"
Earlier this week, the Observer disclosed that the county paid a settlement of more than $60,000 to Crockett after her resignation from the helm of the county's mental health department. That payment followed negotiations with Crockett's attorney.
Commissioners say they weren't consulted about that decision or notified about it until this week, after questions surfaced about the payout to Crockett. Many say they're troubled by that.
"Clearly this was not acceptable ...," commissioners Chairman Jennifer Roberts said Thursday. "The communication was poor."
The question of whether Jones exceeded his authority - and how he should improve his communication with the board - will be central to the discussion Tuesday, several commissioners said.
Under Mecklenburg policy, the manager is authorized to settle all claims or lawsuits against the county, provided the amount of the settlement doesn't exceed $30,000.
In Crockett's case, the dollar amount exceeded that threshold. About $63,000 of her final pay was negotiated by her lawyer and a deputy county attorney.
Whether the county's policy on legal settlements would apply in Crockett's case is unclear. Her attorney, John Gresham, said Crockett never threatened legal action.
"We never reached that point," Gresham said.
County attorney Marvin Bethune said the county has used that policy in the past in cases before any lawsuit was filed. He said it will be up to the commissioners to decide whether the policy applied in Crockett's case.
Bethune said he was not directly involved in the negotiations over Crockett's final pay. The deputy county attorney who was involved, Tyrone Wade, did not return the Observer's phone calls Thursday.
Jones didn't respond directly to the Observer's questions about whether county policy was followed.
"(Jones) reiterates that his decision was made in the best financial interests of Mecklenburg County," county spokesman Danny Diehl wrote in response to questions. "He intends to discuss this matter with the Board of County Commissioners at its meeting on Tuesday before providing any further comments."
Jones, 61, has been county manager since 2000. He is being paid $283,011 in total compensation this year as the top administrator over a staff of more than 4,000 employees. The county budget exceeds $1.3 billion.
Commissioners Harold Cogdell and Neil Cooksey said they're not sure whether next week's meeting will result in discipline for Jones.
"I think that depends on what we hear from our attorneys and how Harry addresses it with the board," said Cogdell, a Democrat who is seen by many as a potential swing vote after he challenged Roberts for the chairmanship.
The nine-member board is made up of five Democrats and four Republicans.
Questions about pay
Crockett announced her resignation in December after federal housing regulators faulted her department for poor oversight of a large mental health contractor.
Starting in early January, the Observer began asking county officials for information about Crockett's post-resignation pay. But until Tuesday, county officials never mentioned a legal settlement.
Wade, the deputy county attorney, wrote to an Observer reporter on Feb. 1 that Crockett's post-resignation compensation amounted to $99,329.18. "This amount was for her vacation and accrued sick time," he wrote.
On Tuesday, however, officials acknowledged that most of the payout was negotiated to protect the county's legal interests and to bring about an immediate change in leadership.
Commissioner Dumont Clarke said the county might have spent more money if Crockett had sued the county.
But Clarke said Wade's initial description of Crockett's post-resignation pay was "clearly misleading" given other facts that have come to light.
"I do expect communications from the county to the press to be accurate and complete, and not to misrepresent the facts either by misstating or omitting to state material facts," Clarke said. "... I do expect the manager to ensure that is the case."
All nine commissioners have said they did not learn about the negotiated payment until this week. Seven said they believed they should have been told beforehand.
"When there's been a resignation of a key official in a situation damaging to the county ... we absolutely should be involved at the highest level," Bentley said. "And we weren't."
Several commissioners said they're worried the episode has eroded the public's trust in county government.
"We understand how important the public trust is," Roberts said. "We'll work to clear up that trust. We all need to work together to get through a challenging time."
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