Mecklenburg manager Harry Jones used a provision that gives him broad control over some budget dollars when he approved a $60,000 post-resignation payment to former mental health director Grayce Crockett, according to a new memo from the county attorney.
At Tuesday's board meeting, commissioners issued a joint statement about the payout, which among other things, said that Jones had the authority to approve a negotiated payment to Crockett without prior approval from the board.
Previously, some had questioned whether Jones violated a county policy that gives the manager authority to approve legal settlements up to $30,000.
But in a memo issued to top Mecklenburg officials Wednesday, county attorney Marvin Bethune said Jones used his budget authority, rather than his claims settlement authority, to handle resignation negotiations with Crockett.
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Mecklenburg's annual budget ordinance gives the county manager power to make some changes to the annual spending plan without the board's approval.
"As you may remember, I specifically asked that the statement being drafted not include the words "settlement" or "claims," Bethune wrote in an e-mail obtained by the Observer. "[One reason was that the Manager indicated that he did not use his settlement authority in negotiating the resignation. The other was that using the word "claims" would be the release of information not authorized by statute.]"
Bethune declined to discuss his e-mail Wednesday, saying it should not have been released due to confidentiality rules.
Recent discussions may prompt commissioners to revise the county's policy on settling claims.
Previously, commissioner Bill James had contended that the wording of the policy made it potentially vulnerable to abuse. Because the policy could be interpreted to allow $30,000 per claim, a manager could use it to pay large amounts to a person making multiple claims against the county.
But in his e-mail, Bethune noted that the county's policy appears more restrictive than the city of Charlotte's, which gives the city manager the authority to approve settlements up to $100,000.
Commissioners may consider revising the county's policy in a future meeting.
While commissioners said Jones didn't overstep his authority, they scolded him Tuesday for misleading the public about Crockett's final pay, and for failing to inform them about the payment negotiated by Crockett's attorney.
Crockett's resignation last month came as federal housing regulators faulted her department for poor oversight of Mecklenburg Open Door, a large mental health contractor.
In response to questions about her final compensation, a deputy county attorney earlier this month told the Observer that Crockett had been paid about $99,000 for accrued sick leave and vacation.
Last week, however, county 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. Staff Writer April Bethea contributed.