CHARLES TOWN – The County Commission has agreed to hire former County Administrator Leslie Smith as a consultant, with the hope that she will help to right the county’s troubled budget.
[cleeng_content id="887027437" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]Commissioners Patsy Noland, Dale Manuel and Jane Tabb voted in favor of approving the contract. Commissioners Lyn Widmyer and Walt Pellish, who often find themselves on opposite sides in close votes, opposed the approval.
Smith was terminated as administrator in a controversial 3-2 vote in 2009 after nearly two decades in that position. She later sued the county for wrongful termination. The suit was settled for $225,000, but the county did not admit to wrongdoing.
The commission has agreed to pay her up to $10,000 in fees at a rate of $150 per hour.
In addition, it will cover a variety of expenses and pay for half of a liability insurance policy estimated to cost between $3,000 and $5,000. The contract limits her working period to 30 days, but leaves open the possibility of a future contract renewal.
Manuel spoke in favor of contracting with Smith, emphasizing her experience overseeing the county’s finances.
“I think that this is one more tool for us as a commission as a whole to utilize to get our current budget under control,” he said. “I think that another set of eyes – and one that is extremely experienced with working with budgets in the state of West Virginia – would be helpful.”
Tabb agreed, saying: “She has a unique set of skills that we desperately need right now. She has the experience, and to me it’s worth it.”
Manuel, who voted against Smith’s firing in 2009, said she could provide insight into older practices that he feels better kept the budget in check.
“I’m looking and think that we should have an analysis of the budgeting process that may show us where we deviated from practices that we found that were more appropriate and kept us in the black instead of the red,” he said.
Widmyer spoke in opposition, arguing that the budget should be overseen by a county financial director. She noted that the commission agreed two weeks ago to enter contract negotiations with a prospective candidate for the position.
“We do not need this agreement,” she said. “We are nearing closure on hiring a financial director. We do not need a contract to revisit the work of a former finance director who we paid $75,000 a year.
“This is a contract that has spiraled way beyond $10,000,” she added, estimating that the price tag “could now be approaching $15,000.”
Widmyer is the only remaining commissioner who voted to terminate Smith in 2009.
Pellish, who has previously supported the contract, said he had modified his position after further consideration.
“When this idea was first proffered, I was very much in favor of it,” he said, adding that he now had some “caveats.”
“Some things have changed since this was brought before us,” he said. “We are very, very close … to finalizing an agreement with a new senior financial person for the organization. As such, I think that’s who should do the analysis of the budget.”
Pellish argued that the commission should keep open the possibility that Smith could help the new director. “If that person would find it beneficial to consult with Leslie, I think that person ought to have the option of doing so,” he said.
Debbie Royalty and Eleanor Finn, both officers with the League of Women Voters who were speaking in a personal capacity, voiced opposition to the contract.
Royalty expressed concerns with the transparency and competitiveness of the contracting process.
“This is the first we’ve been able to see the contract,” said Royalty, noting that Wednesday’s meeting was the first time the details of the contract had been publicly released.
“There was no bid for this contract,” she added.
Royalty said the commission would be spending excessively on Smith’s travel expenses, saying: “I can’t understand why you would want to pay for someone who lives in Charleston.”
Finn said the county’s settlement agreement with Smith had included a provision specifying that she would not seek employment with the commission in the future and argued that there “should not be some semantic exercise about employee versus consultant.”
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Stephen Groh addressed this concern, saying that “neither side wants to upset the settlement agreement.”
Noting two contract clauses in which both the commission and Smith agree that the contractual relationship would in no way alter the settlement, Groh opined that the conditions of the settlement did not conflict with the action under consideration.
Finn questioned the need for a budget consultant, telling the commission they should “roll up their sleeves” and work though the budget themselves. She also said they should move quickly to hire a new financial director to fill the vacancy left by Paul Shroyer, who resigned earlier this year for health reasons.[/cleeng_content]