In contentious meeting, McDowell County Commissioners take control of DSS [The McDowell News, Marion, N.C.]
(McDowell News (Marion, NC) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sept. 11--After an angry and contentious public hearing, the McDowell County Commissioners voted 3-1 Monday to put the Department of Social Services under their direct control and abolish the DSS Board of Directors. This resulted in four members of the DSS board immediately turning in their resignations.
Some county officials said they were taking this step because of issues regarding financial coordination, legal responsibility and employee morale.
"It's about responsibility, a lot of it," said Commission Vice Chairman Barry McPeters. "It comes back to responsibility."
However, Commissioner Michael Lavender, who voted against the motion Monday and back in July when the process stared, said the real answer lies elsewhere.
"I really think the 'why,' the answer, may lie in wresting control of the hiring and firing of the director and control of DSS employees," he wrote in a statement Tuesday to The McDowell News. "However, even after last night's vote, DSS employees will remain, by law, under a different personnel system, which will tax our already overworked personnel staff. It is not easy to have two different sets of rules for two different groups of county employees.
"I fully believe that whatever issues other commissioners may have had with the director could have been dealt with in a much different manner with less drama, hard feelings, staff division, and most importantly, with an equivalent end result. The ladies serving on the DSS board are highly competent and capable of addressing issues brought to their attention."
Immediately after the vote, four directors with the DSS board turned in their resignations to the commissioners.
"During the past several months, the Board of Directors of the Department of Social Services has tried to discuss and negotiate any issues that you have had with the agency," reads the letter. "However, this has been in vain as the commissioners have not been open for discussion and solutions. County Commissioners already have great control over the agency as they approve the department's yearly budget. However, we do not believe that the County Commissioners are the best equipped with knowledge and experience to totally oversee this award-winning agency."
The letter bears the names of DSS board members Della Watson, Alice Little, Vice Chairwoman Pat Faulkner and Chairwoman Laura Myhr.
In July, the County Commission voted 4-1 to start the process of bringing the DSS under their control. They took this vote after calling DSS Director Phillip Hardin and Senior Center Director Weyland Prebor into a meeting about whether or not the Senior Center should be a separate agency apart from DSS. Lavender called this "an ambush."
After taking that action, a public hearing had to be held before the move could become official. That hearing was held at Monday's regular meeting of the County Commission.
During the hearing, the commissioners considered a resolution, similar to one adopted in Watauga County. The resolution states that the commissioners "intend to abolish the McDowell County Board of Social Services and assume and confer upon the Board of Commissioners all powers, responsibilities and duties of the McDowell County Board of Social Services..."
Commission Vice Chairman Barry McPeters presided over Monday's meeting. McPeters said he was doing this because Commission Chairman David Walker is on vacation.
Walker is also a member of the DSS Board of Directors. In July, he spoke to The McDowell News about his support of having the commissioners take control of the department and have the DSS board continue in an "advisory" role. Walker said at the time it would be a "positive move with no disruption of services."
His absence at Monday's hearing was mentioned several times by the DSS directors who were strongly opposed to this action.
"(Walker) wasn't at a lot of meetings," said Pat Faulkner.
They also wanted to know why the commissioners had not talked with them previously about any issues or concerns.
"You did not meet with us," said Watson. "I consider it sort of a slap in the face,"
"We are very proud of the Department of Social Services," said Faulkner. "They are working very hard."
Faulkner added that she and other members of the DSS board asked the department's employees not to attend Monday's hearing for fear that it would cause them future problems.
"What efficiencies do you plan to do and what do you plan to change?" asked Faulkner. "I do not understand why this board did not come to us and give us the opportunity to talk to you. I am concerned about the transparency and I don't think you are prepared to do this."
Her husband Richard Faulkner, who is not on the DSS board, said he was sorry to see Hardin leave. Last month, Hardin announced he was resigning as DSS director. He told The McDowell News his decision to resign and take a new job in Buncombe had nothing to do with the July vote by the County Commissioners to put the local department under their authority.
Some of the people who spoke at Monday's hearing said Hardin was "taking the high road" about why he was leaving. Richard Faulkner said he knew that there was a communication problem between Hardin and some of the commissioners and the county manager
"You needed leadership to fix it," said Richard Faulkner. "You don't run people off. I don't think you will know what you have lost until much further down the road."
He and others said they wanted to know why this was being done.
Gwen Straub also voiced her opposition. "I think it's huge loss," she said. "I think the DSS board should keep running the department. Just because the Legislature wrote you can do it doesn't mean you should."
Only one person from the public spoke in favor of this action. "I prefer to see this under the control of elected representatives," said Neil Schunke.
After holding the hearing, the commissioners had their turn to speak.
"I wasn't part of the process that took us here," said Lavender to the crowd in the boardroom.
He added that Hardin was "not the best person to be social and graceful. He can come across as being a little rough. He is, on the other hand, very good at money management issues."
Lavender said the county cannot control a lot of the finances in DSS. Much of the department's budget comes from state and federal sources and their use is earmarked. He added the County Commission is not ready to take on this additional responsibility. He asked the other commissioners if they know what TANF and AFDC stand for.
"I don't think we are prepared to handle it," said Lavender. "If there is an issue are we going to meet about those too?"
Commissioner Randy Hollifield said DSS is the county's largest department in terms of finance. "We're the money managers," he said. "As Mr. Lavender pointed out, we're going to have a learning curve."
McPeters said he's had friends of his, who were DSS employees, visit his home on a friendly basis. Those people were reprimanded for visiting his home. McPeters said that "got under his skin" because he is a citizen and a taxpayer too,
If any lawsuits are filed against DSS, the county has to answer those, too.
"There's still going to be problems and there's still going to be questions about DSS," said McPeters.
Dean Henline, husband of DSS Board Chairwoman Laura Myhr, asked the commissioners why they did not respond to their questions.
"We will marshal our forces at election time!" said Henline.
Lavender said there were private discussions about this in a back room at the County Administration Building and pointed in that direction. Henline said the state has an Open Meetings Law which prohibits secret meetings by public officials. The commissioners said they abide by that law. Lavender said Tuesday his statement may have confused some people and he apologized for it.
Commissioner Joe Kaylor read the resolution prepared by the board and made a motion that it be adopted. Lavender seconded it but he said he was doing that for purposes of discussion. He wanted to continue talking about this issue but McPeters reminded him that there was another public hearing coming up soon. Lavender said the commissioners don't have to be done at a set time.
Michelle Harris said the commissioners have cut out public discussion before but held three hearings about a noise ordinance.
"Kaylor is running this damn show!" said Henline.
"You are out of order," said McPeters in response. He added he would not tolerate profanity.
The commissioners voted 3-1 to adopt the resolution with Lavender voting against. At that moment, Pat Faulkner gave them their letter of resignation.
(c)2013 The McDowell News (Marion, N.C.)
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