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Resolution for gov: Use better judgment

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor
Jack Betts
Fannie Flono writes on news, politics and life in The Carolinas. Her column appears on the Editorial pages of The Charlotte Observer.

Privatize! That’s what conservatives often push when government workers do a job poorly. But that’s not a viable alternative when government workers keep making problematic hiring (and firing) decisions.

N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory’s first year on the job has been plagued with such poor decisions, and on the final day of 2013 yet another one made news – a judge reversed the firing of an Alcohol Law Enforcement Agent, saying it was politically motivated.

So as the new year gets under way, here’s hoping the governor’s administration will try harder to exercise better judgment in this arena. If those administrators don’t, we expect McCrory to at least hold their feet to the fire over such missteps.

That didn’t appear to happen over the course of 2013 when month after month a new revelation emerged about bumbling personnel decisions – most often centered in the Health and Human Services Department headed by Aldona Wos.

McCrory had barely been in office a month when Wos hired as head of the state’s prekindergarten program a woman who was a vocal opponent of prekindergarten. Dianna Lightfoot resigned two days after her hiring when news broke of her public opposition and lack of early education expertise, as well as controversial and offensive comments she made on Facebook and Twitter. Of the matter, McCrory would only say “mistakes were made.”

Eyebrows were also raised over Wos’ hiring for her staff two 24-year-old former McCrory campaign aides at salaries of $85,000 and $87,500. McCrory made matters worse when he claimed the two were the most qualified applicants and that they beat out “a lot of older people” for the jobs. That wasn’t true. It was later reported the positions were never publicly advertised to outside candidates.

There have been other reports of friends, acquaintances and political supporters of McCrory being hired for jobs where their qualifications were questionable and their compensation high.

Cronyism isn’t the purview of one political party. But these hires and high salaries felt particularly egregious since they were being given while the state struggled financially. Officials slashed funding for services and declined to give public school teachers a needed raise.

In September, even state Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, recognized the optics weren’t good. He said then: “I do think, in an environment like this, when you have not given the teachers a raise or the other state employees a raise, you have to be hyper-sensitive to what people in the higher end are doing and obtaining from government... It does send a bad message if you’re asking everyone else to sacrifice and a few don’t seem to be sacrificing.”

The latest personnel controversy was not about a hiring, but a firing.

Former ALE Director John Ledford was fired as an ALE agent in April by Frank Perry, McCrory’s secretary of the Department of Public Safety. On Tuesday, an administrative law judge said the state did not follow its own policy and improperly fired Ledford, and that the motivation was Ledford’s party affiliation as a Democrat. He ordered Ledford re-instated as an ALE agent, given approximately $44,000 in back pay, and reimbursed $50,000 in attorneys’ fees.

Perry testified that he fired Ledford for “unacceptable personal conduct” after he looked into Ledford’s actions after two “disgruntled” ALE agents who had been disciplined collaboratively filed grievances about Ledford. The complaint was about Ledford’s change in employment status. In late 2012, in advance of the new Republican administration, Ledford asked to be demoted from director and reassigned as an agent. Then-Secretary of the Department of Public Safety Reuben Young consented, after clearing it with then Gov. Bev Perdue, her senior staff, his human resources director and the director of the Office of State Personnel.

But in March, Perry’s predecessor, McCrory’s first secretary of the Public Safety Department Kieran Shanahan, had decided that neither of the grievances were legitimate, and the two agents dropped their complaints.

Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison found that Perry’s explanation for the firing was simply a ruse and not legitimate. He noted that Perry also ignored suggestions from state personnel officials to allow Ledford to remain an agent in Asheville or move him to Wilmington, the ruling says.

Most importantly, he ruled that the Public Safety department hadn’t followed its own disciplinary policy nor past practices: Ledford was never notified of what he had done wrong, nor offered a chance to tell his side, and his former superiors were not interviewed by the new administration.

It was almost laughable to read that at Ledford’s hearing in early December, Perry testified that he didn’t know who wrote either the memo dismissing Ledford nor a second version of the memo that was worded differently. Even more amusing was his acknowledgment that though he fired Ledford, he didn’t know anything about Ledford’s qualifications, and all he knew about the demotion was what he had read in Under the Dome, The (Raleigh) News & Observer’s political column. Really?

The state could read some political motives into the ruling, and appeal to a Superior Court judge. Judge Morrison is a registered Democrat. And as ALE director, Ledford was roundly criticized in a state audit for lacking proper documentation for his (and his deputy director's) use of state-owned vehicles and resisting efforts by auditors to look into the matter.

But if it’s true that the department failed to follow its own rules and policies in firing Ledford who was then an ALE agent and that Perry ignored state personnel officials’ suggestions on handling the situation, the state should not appeal. Officials should chalk this matter up to bad judgment.

McCrory is right. “Mistakes were made,” on this and other personnel matters. In this new year, the governor and his administrators should learn from those mistakes – not ignore them.

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