Smith settlement should be a lesson

The out-of-court settlement reported this week between the Jefferson County Commission and former administrator, Leslie Smith, who was fired in 2009 after 18 years of service, should serve as a lesson to governmental bodies about the perils of confusing public policy with personal agendas.

The settlement was reached recently following a years’ long battle between the administrator and her onetime employer after severance compensation negotiations between the two broke down in the months after Smith’s termination. Smith, whose firing on a 3-2 vote provoked a tremendous outpouring of support from both the public and past county officials, sought more than $630,000 in back wages.

Commissioners Lyn Widmyer, Frances Morgan and former Commissioner Jim Surkamp voted to end the employment of Smith, who filed a lawsuit against the county in September 2010, alleging wrongful discharge, retaliatory distress, harassment, breach of contract and a violation of the Human Rights Act.

The fallout from Smith’s dismissal was significant. And the cost to the county has been as well. Jefferson County, which is now on its third administrator since her dismissal, lost a longtime employee who was well-known, well- respected and knowledgeable. Indeed, a number of county commissioners both past and present spoke highly of her at the time of her dismissal and sharply criticized those officials who were more intent on ramming through an agenda they wanted instead of receiving sound policy advice from a longtime public servant. How it did this — by shutting down comment from citizens who singled them out, thereby seeking to make the entire panel complicit in that vote — was both bullheaded and wrongheaded, and brought them no small measure of enmity. To be sure, two of the commissioners responsible have since been voted out of office.

County officials say they’re eager to move on from this unfortunate matter. Hopefully, not so eager as to neglect a lesson learned.

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