County pays $55,000 in Smith firing

CHARLES TOWN – A settlement has been reached in the wrongful termination lawsuit filed three years ago by former County Administrator Leslie Smith.

While the full terms of the settlement have not been made public, the county will pay her $55,000.

The Jefferson County Commission made no admission of wrongdoing.

Smith’s lawsuit against the commission, as well as against each of the five commissioners in their official capacity, alleged discrimination on the basis of her age and gender. It is not known whether judgments were made against any of the commissioners individually.

She’d asked the court to determine the amount of damages to be awarded to her. At the time of the suit’s filing, media reports said she requested more than $630,000 in compensation for more than 7,000 hours of accrued but unused compensatory leave, vacation and sick time.

Smith had been in her position for almost two decades when she was fired in September of 2009. At the time, all five members of the commission were Democrats. Lyn Widmyer, Jim Surkamp and Frances Morgan voted to terminate her; Dale Manuel and Patsy Noland voted no.

After a single term, Surkamp was defeated in his party’s primary the following spring. Republican Walt Pellish now serves in that seat. Morgan lost her seat in last month’s election to former Commissioner Jane Tabb, also a Republican.

Smith, who works for the state Senate in Charleston in Sen. Herb Snyder’s office, couldn’t be reached for comment. Said her lawyer, Peter Chakmakian: “This ordeal has been very difficult for Leslie. I’m sure she’s happy to have it behind her.”

“After working for almost 20 years as county administrator and, in my view, having successfully acted as such for many administrations of county commissioners, there were three commissioners that evidently felt otherwise and voted to terminate her, despite public opposition,” Chakmakian said. “There was not, to me, substantial basis for her termination.”

Widmyer, who made the motion to terminate Smith, said this week she is glad to move on.

“I’m glad it’s resolved,” she said. “At the beginning of this process, I supported a severance package for Ms. Smith in the range of $55,000. This settlement requires the county to pay that same amount. I believe the settlement terms are in the best interest of the taxpayers of Jefferson County and avoids protracted litigation over a matter that occurred several years ago.”

Widmyer explains that her decision at the time was motivated by a need to modernize county government.

“I think that Jefferson County is no longer the sleepy little county that many of us knew and loved from many years ago,” she said. “Times are changing. Regulations are changing. And I just thought that we needed to have an approach to county government that was more policy-based, that was more professional. I was looking for that type of approach in county government, and so I felt that we needed new leadership to achieve that.”

Tabb was out of office at the time of Smith’s firing, having been defeated by Morgan in 2006. At the time, Tabb wrote in a letter that Widmyer, Surkamp and Morgan had “demonstrated a lack of common courtesy and personal integrity.”

“I felt that (Smith) was fired for political reasons, because she would not take direction from individual commissioners,” Tabb said this week. “It was an unfortunate collision of political motives and individual personalities.”

Tabb describes Smith as a model employee. “I learned a lot from Leslie Smith,” she said. “I gained a greater understanding of the workings of a local government.”

“She was always ready to answer any questions. She would absolutely say, ‘You can’t do that. That’s not legal,’ or ‘This discussion needs to take place in public,’ anything like that,” she said. “She was very straight-forward, and I appreciated her honesty and candor at all times.”

Noland, who said she disagreed “very strongly” with the commission’s 2009 vote on Smith, described a sense of relief that a settlement has been reached.

“I think everybody is relieved that it has finally come to an end, and we can put it behind us and move forward with more positive things,” she said.

Morgan declined comment for this story. Surkamp could not be reached.

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