CHARLES TOWN – Four years after former County Administrator Leslie Smith was fired by the Jefferson County Commission in a controversial 3-2 vote, the commission is now considering awarding her a contract of up to $10,000 to review the county’s stretched budget.
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Smith was fired in 2009 after almost 20 years as the county’s chief administrator with then-Commissioners Jim Surkamp and Francis Morgan and current-Commissioner Lyn Widmer voting in favor of her termination. She later filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the commission, which was settled out of court for $225,000.
The commission did not admit any wrongdoing in the settlement.
Smith agreed, as part of the settlement, not to seek future employment from the County Commission.
The Commission voted 4-1 at their last meeting to enter into negotiations with Smith for a 30-day contract not to exceed $10,000, with a broad mandate to analyze and/or reconstruct the current budget as well as past budgets. The contract would also authorize her to submit a report concerning the preparation and presentation of county budgets and to work with state and county officials to gather data on revenue and spending.
Commissioner Patsy Noland, who sponsored the resolution, said she was confident in Smith’s ability to help the county cure its budget woes.
“Leslie is an expert in this field,” she said. “It is essential that we have someone in there to take a look at our budget. We are getting ready to consider funding outside agencies and contingency agencies, and I just want to be sure that the funds are going to be there to do that.
“I feel that we need someone with Leslie’s knowledge – her institutional knowledge, her expertise and understanding of county budgets – to be able to have her look at it and to make recommendations to the commission and to help us along in that process.”
Commissioners Dale Manuel and Jane Tabb expressed similar sentiments during the meeting.
“I am familiar with Ms. Smith’s work on budgets in the years that she and I worked together, and I think she was exemplary,” Manuel said. “I don’t think anyone has more background or expertise in the field.”
“She taught me a lot about county budgets. I can nowhere near touch her knowledge,” Tabb agreed. “At this moment in time, that is what we need.”
Widmyer said she was opposed to opening the negotiation and suggested the proposed contract was a waste of taxpayers’ dollars.
“My position is that we don’t need to spend $10,000 for a contract we don’t need with monies we don’t have to know the problems with the budget,” she said. “I don’t think we need to pay a consultant $300 a day to tell us we’ve got problems in terms of revenues that are lower than we expected due largely to the casino returns, and we’ve got expenditures that exceed our income. We need to solve that as a county commission.”
Widmyer told the other commissioners she was also concerned about talking about Smith’s potential hiring in an executive session of the commission.
“This contract for a financial consultant has been on the county’s agenda four times, and always in executive session,” Widmyer said “My concern is that this is a contract with a vendor for $10,000. I think that aspect should have been discussed in public session.”
Widmyer said she has written to the Ethics Commission of West Virginia seeking a ruling on whether it was appropriate to discuss a consultant contract in executive session under the Open Meetings Act’s personnel exemption. She said she was worried that the contracting process might be complete before the Ethics Commission could issue an opinion.
“It is an issue, to me, when we can go into executive session under a personnel exemption when we are actually talking about a contract for services,” Widmyer said. “Why can’t those services be discussed in public?”
This week’s county commission agenda notes the possibility of another executive session in relation to the Smith contract this week.
During the meeting, Tabb said the sessions were used to discuss sensitive contract and legal matters.
“I have felt comfortable in our use of [executive session,]” Tabb said.