County commission fires longtime manager Harry Jones

dperlmutt@charlotteobserver.comMay 7, 2013 

After months of growing tensions between longtime Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones and county commissioners, the board voted Tuesday to terminate Jones after 13 years on the job.

In a packed government chambers, his firing was swift with no discussion in open session. After a 6-2 vote across party lines with commissioner Dumont Clarke and Vice Chairwoman Kim Ratliff opposing, the board ended Jones’ contract shortly after it emerged from a three-hour closed session. Commissioner George Dunlap was absent.

Board Chairwoman Pat Cotham told Jones his office would be secured and his personal belongings delivered to his home.

Jones, 63, Mecklenburg’s fourth manager, had been under fire primarily because of a botched 2011 property revaluation and his handling of problems with the county social services agency. He tried to address the board – until Cotham quickly cut him off and told him he couldn’t.

He quietly stepped away from his dais chair. He shook hands with each commissioner and left out a side door.

After that, the board went back into closed session to shouts from the audience: “We’ve been waiting for two hours.” Many were teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week, there to support Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ proposed building program.

After several minutes, Jones pulled some of his staff together to speak to them in a hallway.

Some were crying; most were stone-faced. Several staffers said Cotham was disrespectful for not allowing Jones to speak.

He told them he’d been in public service since 1975 and never been fired. He assured them he wasn’t hurt or bitter.

“I want all of you to know that I am at total peace with myself, recognizing that I was serving at the pleasure of the board and understanding that one day this could conceivably happen,” Jones told them. “Continue to be the very strong professionals that you are.”

He told them that in two weeks they would be presenting the 2013-14 county budget that he hoped would “have some of my stamp on it.”

“You exist for one reason and that one reason is to serve the citizens of this community,” Jones continued. “And you have done it, damn it, with the greatest level of professionalism.”

Moving forward, Cotham said in a brief interview that a search for a new county manager would begin immediately and she expects to have one in place by September, or October at the latest.

She said she expected county staff “to do their job as usual, with accountability.”

She said the board couldn’t wait until after the 2013-14 budget was complete to remove Jones.

“We’re already down the road with the budget,” she said. “If we waited until after the budget, that means we wouldn’t have a new manager in place until January, and that would be a problem for the next budget.”

When the board returned from its second closed session, it voted 8-0 to promote General Manager Bobbie Shields, loyal to Jones, to interim county manager until a permanent manager is hired.

Shields took Jones’ seat. He sat expressionless, even when the board voted a 10 percent raise on top of his yearly $203,000 salary.

The board began meeting Tuesday at 5 p.m. in closed session. Jones was not in the session. Instead, he spent much of the three hours wandering in and out of the chambers, talking on his cellphone.

It was clear that he’d learned of his fate before the board went into open session.

As the board entered the chamber, Clarke, looking shaken, was the first to shake Jones’ hand and then the two sat.

Under his contract, Jones will receive six months salary and benefits as part of a severance package because the termination was made without cause.

Jones, who has been battling pancreatic cancer since December 2011, is the first county manager to be fired.

His contract stipulated that Jones served “at the pleasure of the Board of County Commissioners.” The contract gave the board the right to “terminate the services of (Jones) at any time.”

20-year history

Jones had worked for Mecklenburg for more than 20 years – ultimately overseeing a county staff of 4,400 and a $1.3 billion budget.

His first stint in Charlotte was with the city as community development director from 1981 to 1984. He left and came back as Mecklenburg’s assistant county manager in 1991 and was elevated to county manager in October 2000.

Jones has been praised for building a good staff. He’s generally credited with many county projects.

Early in his career, he created a scorecard to evaluate county services and make county government more efficient. During Jones’ tenure, the county went on a building boom, including new jails and a $148 million, nine-story county courthouse, marking the first time since 1970 that all courts were housed in one building.

As the recession gripped the county, Jones and the board launched a new system to pay for construction and control county debt – preserving Mecklenburg’s AAA bond rating.

Just before Christmas 2011, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and underwent treatment. He rarely missed a day of work because of his cancer.

Recently, he told an Observer reporter that he weighed 197 pounds at his diagnosis, and now weighed 198.

“It’s a miracle,” he said.

String of missteps

Yet he had several missteps with the board. Over the years, the list grew – which, more than any single mistake, probably led to his firing on Tuesday.

In 2008, commissioners took Jones’ recommendation to appoint Mary Wilson to lead the Department of Social Services, the county’s largest agency. It oversees such programs as Medicaid, food stamps and foster care.

Soon after she started the job, Wilson endured criticism when she posted a job opening for one day and hired Samara Foxx as her special assistant at a salary of $100,000. Foxx is the wife of Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx.

DSS also hired the daughter of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe and the daughter of Superior Court Judge Yvonne Mims Evans.

Jones was the target of sharp criticism after investigations into spending at a county DSS program that bought Christmas gifts for needy children. A former county worker who volunteered with the Giving Tree program pleaded guilty to embezzling money from the charity.

Soon Jones apologized for two widely criticized emails. In 2009, after receiving an email from a resident critical of the DSS misspending, Jones forwarded the note to the man’s employer. The following year, commissioners chastised Jones for sending an email expressing distrust of library leaders.

In 2012, the former executive director of Mecklenburg Open Door was sentenced to 18 months in prison for obtaining more than $145,000 in unauthorized payments from the publicly funded mental health contractor.

Mecklenburg County’s child welfare division became so dysfunctional that consultants recommended bringing in outside monitors, a rare move that reflected widespread failures.

In February 2011, the board reprimanded Jones for not telling commissioners about a $60,000 settlement to Grayce Crockett, the county’s former mental health director, and for releasing information in former commissioner Jim Pendergraph’s personnel file.

Jones counted last year as one of his most successful, overseeing a split by the county from Carolinas HealthCare System, which will happen officially on July 1, finding a way to pay for fire protection in unincorporated areas and starting construction of Romare Bearden Park in Third Ward.

He had his staunch supporters, but Jones’ relationship with the board was strained. Last November, it apparently reached a boil after the board denied him a pay raise

Jones felt he deserved a 4.5 percent raise. He got nothing, after a year when the county came under public criticism for its much-maligned 2011 revaluation and problems with the county’s social services agency. The board did agree to pay for his wife’s health insurance until she’s eligible for Medicare – whether Jones was county manager or not.

Some commissioners say Jones got angry after getting no raise and berated the board. Others say he never berated or got aggressive.

As protests over the revaluation widened, other problems mounted.

In January, commissioners were caught off guard when the state transferred oversight of millions of dollars in Medicaid money from the county’s MeckLINK Behavioral Healthcare to an out-of-county government agency.

Jones hired an outside lawyer and the county successfully fought the state’s decision to transfer the money to an out-of-county agency.

Still, some commissioners were upset that they learned about the matter when the public did – and admonished Jones for what they called a continuing pattern of withholding important information from the board.

Then in March, Cotham openly criticized Jones and his managers for delaying by more than four months their recruitment of a new director for the troubled DSS. The agency has been without a director since September.

Jones typically brushed off the criticism by saying: “I serve at the pleasure of the board.” He’d add that if the board decided they “needed to go in another direction, they’ll get rid of me.”

Tuesday, the board decided it was going in another direction.

Goodbyes

After he spoke to staffers before leaving Tuesday night, Jones hugged each one of them.

To General Manager Michelle Lancaster he said: “Wipe those tears. Wipe ’em. It’s been a good ride.”

To Jim Garges, director of the county’s park and recreation department, he said: “Get that park (Romare Bearden) open. Make that park better than Central Park in New York.”

To reporters, Jones said he wasn’t particularly surprised about the firing. “I’ve been the focus of closed-session discussions since January,” he said.

He said he felt good about his accomplishments in Mecklenburg and about the staff he’s put together.

He thought Cotham was “discourteous” for not allowing him to speak. He said he only wanted to thank his staff publicly and Mecklenburg residents “for the opportunity to serve them.”

He said he’d wanted to finish some projects before he retired in late 2015, and that he’s concerned about the timing of his firing two weeks before the budget is presented.

“They could have made this decision a month ago or a month from now,” he said. “They made it tonight and I have to live with that and go on. … But guess what: You haven’t seen the last of Harry Jones.”

Walking toward the door, he shouted: “Now I’ve got to call my mama.”

Staff writers Ely Portillo, April Bethea, Fred Clasen-Kelly contributed.

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061.

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