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Jones accuses council of straw poll after hiring freeze

Smoak, others dispute claim

Posted: April 21, 2011 5:20 p.m.
Updated: April 22, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Kershaw County Councilman Jimmy Jones is accusing four fellow councilmen of using a “straw poll” to circumvent a hiring freeze they voted for during an April 12 meeting. Jones, who represents District 4, said the councilmen’s actions allowed several county department heads to hire employees after the freeze went into effect.

“I cannot sit idly by while decisions made in public by our governing body are reversed in private,” Jones said during a press conference in council chambers Wednesday afternoon. “It appears Kershaw County’s administration has hired county employees after a hiring freeze was imposed by county council. It also appears this was done after taking a straw poll of council members outside the public’s view.”

Those Jones accused of participating in the straw poll said no such thing happened and criticized Jones for distracting council from more important matters.

A straw poll is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “an unofficial vote taken (as at a chance gathering) to indicate the relative strength of opposing candidates or issues.” In politics, straw polls, or votes, are deemed counter to open government “sunshine laws,” especially if taken outside of public meetings.

“What is done in full view of the voting public cannot be undone in private. I believe that’s called the sunshine principle. Today, we are shining the light of day on what was done out of sight in the dark,” Jones said.

Jones explained to reporters that he was reading a statement he planned to make during Thursday afternoon’s work session, but that he would “have more to say about this next Tuesday evening in council chambers.” Work sessions -- like the one scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday -- are also open to the public. The Chronicle-Independent will have coverage of Thursday’s work session in Monday’s edition.

“Transparency of government demands accountability,” Jones continued. “I’ve always stood for transparency and accountability. I will not quietly stand by while this blatant disregard for the voting public as well as for the laws of the state of South Carolina occurs.

“I call upon Kershaw County’s administration and my fellow councilmen to right this wrong and return to the principles of transparency and accountability the public deserves,” concluded Jones.

During a question-and-answer period that followed, and during a telephone conversation Thursday morning, Jones specifically claimed Kershaw County Chief Magistrate Judge Hartis was at the center of the controversy. He said he has heard three different stories from his fellow Kershaw County Council members about what happened, and that up to four departments were involved.

“Judge Hartis’ wanting to hire a cashier, someone to accept cash payments in his office, is the reason this all started. The others were thrown in there to make it look good (over) what the real intent was,” Jones said Thursday.

Jones said Hartis and interim County Administrator Frank Broom approached council members at the end of the April 12 meeting. He claimed they asked whether the freeze applied to someone Hartis had made a job offer to prior to the vote.

Hartis, who attended Jones’ press conference, declined to speak about the matter on the record, and had not returned phone messages by deadline Thursday.

Jones also said that several days ago, Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews was offered the chance to hire someone who would otherwise be subjected to the freeze.

“(Matthews) came in yesterday and was told he could, but at the salary scale set by the county administrator,” Jones said, noting the pay scale had yet to be voted on. “To his good sense, the sheriff elected not to participate.”

Jones said Matthews had sent DuBose an email asking if he could hire a particular person and that DuBose had answered he could not because of the mandatory hiring freeze.

“Then, three days later, he’s told he can, but only under a new pay scale that would have brought in the employee at a much lower salary than he was going to bring them in at,” said Jones.

Matthews essentially corroborated Jones’ allegation.

“I had made a job offer to a lady and considered that a binding verbal agreement,” Matthews said. “She subsequently gave her two weeks’ notice and quit her job. We went ahead with the paperwork because we were thinking the (freeze) was from that point forward. The next thing I’m told is, no, I can’t hire her. I was, understandably, upset because she had quit her job.”

Matthews confirmed he emailed County Attorney Ken DuBose, explained the situation to him and that DuBose confirmed he could not hire the woman due to the freeze. DuBose declined to comment citing attorney-client privilege.

“I considered that the end of the story. Then I was in the government building and was talking to (Human Resources Director) Angela Jones and the prospective employee’s name came up. She mentioned to me that I could hire the employee if I brought her on at the pay scale the county administrator had proposed. I asked what the pay was and she showed it to me. It wasn’t what I had promised this lady,” said Matthews.

Matthews said he decided that since council hadn’t approved Broom’s proposed pay scale, he “didn’t think it was OK” to hire the woman.

“I decided to wait until council takes action on the pay. I then subsequently found out it was me, Hartis and the director of public works that they’d made an exception,” Matthews said.

District 2 Councilman Sammie Tucker Jr., who lost the 2010 sheriff’s election to Matthews, said it was actually the sheriff’s actions that eventually led to the current controversy. Tucker said former budget director Crystal Burr and former county administrator Clay Young removed job classifications from the budget process two years ago. He said that allowed department heads to set any salary they wished for their employees.

Tucker said Matthews has taken advantage of that.

“His department is the problem department. He’s gone in there and jacked up the salaries. We knew that if we didn’t deal with it, it was going to be a problem. That’s why the pay plan came up, so we can get some regulation in there,” Tucker said.

Tucker asserted the only reasons Matthews didn’t follow Angela Jones’ advice is because he wouldn’t be able to hire his new employee at the salary he wanted to offer.

“That wasn’t fit for the sheriff, so he said, ‘I’m not going to play anymore,’” said Tucker.

Despite his comments about Matthews, Tucker said his interpretation of the hiring freeze is different than that of Jimmy Jones.

“My interpretation … is that you don’t interview tomorrow, you don’t start the hiring process tomorrow. People that are already in the pipeline, you can’t freeze them. If that’s your intent, you need to make that clear,” Tucker said.

Tucker said he was not part of any conversations beyond those in open session concerning the pay scale, hiring freeze or specific employment offers. He said he was unaware of any straw poll.

“I don’t believe that’s what happened. And we don’t tell (Broom) who to hire or who to fire,” he said.

Tucker also called Jones’ assertions “bad timing.”

“It’s definitely a distraction from what we’re trying to accomplish,” Tucker said. “Council needs to move forward. We’ve got more important things to do and accomplish.

“If we allow this to blossom into something it’s not, it sends a message to (a) new administrator how messed up we are instead of being united,” said Tucker.

Broom is acting as interim county administrator until council votes to hire one of four finalists -- current county treasurer Steve Vincent; interim Abbeville County Administrator Victor Carpenter; former Union County, N.C., Manager Alfred Greene; and Clinton City Manager Josh Kay -- as permanent county administrator.

According to Jones, the April 12 vote on the hiring freeze came on Broom’s recommendation. Jones passed out copies of minutes from that meeting that show council could not come to a consensus on how to fund the new pay scale. At several points in those minutes, Jones is quoted as objecting to possibly having to raise taxes in order to pay for salary increases.

Jones said while he felt compassion for those people to whom employment offers had been made, they were not employees yet and, therefore, subject to the freeze.

“Their PAFs (personnel action forms) had not been signed by the administrator. They are not employees until the first day of work. I was a department head for 18 years out of the 30 I’ve been here. I know how this works,” Jones said. “There is a compassionate (aspect), and I would have considered that, but was never given a chance.”

Jones said he meant he would have been happy to have been part of a special called meeting to deal with the pending hires.

“I have sympathy for the department heads and sympathy to these people, but I also have sympathy for taxpayers and I’m not going to implement a salary scale on the backs of the taxpayers,” said Jones.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Jones declined to name the councilmen involved in the straw poll with the exception of Chairman Gene Wise. He said he had spoken to Wise and the other members involved. He said Wise had felt he had been mislead about what was going on. Thursday, Jones went further, saying Wise was upset that Broom had “drug him into this kind of situation” and that the chairman would likely not follow Broom’s suggestions in the future without input from DuBose. Jones then went on to name councilmen Bobby Gary, C.R. Miles Jr. and Stephen Smoak as participating in the straw poll with Wise.

Wise had no comment Thursday afternoon regarding Jones’ assertions concerning Broom.

He did confirm, however, that Hartis approached him and other council members immediately after the April 12 meeting about the person to whom he had extended an offer.

“As far as I was concerned, that was a done deal, they were exempted,” Wise said. “I didn’t think much about it. To me, it was no big deal.”

Wise said he spoke to Broom at the government center Monday and was told there were several other pending employees who fell into the same situation as Hartis’.

“We agreed the criteria was that they had been hired prior to the freeze. (Councilman) Bobby (Gary) walked in. It was mentioned that the offers had been extended and accepted and that they were going to report to work. From a business standpoint, they were hired,” Wise said.

Wise said he then got in touch with other council members and relayed Broom’s information.

“I said the same thing to all of them. It was common sense.”

Smoak, who represents District 5, strongly disputed Jones’ characterization of the entire matter.

“This is completely a non-story, a non-issue,” Smoak said Thursday morning. “This is about the county honoring its obligations. These were (employment) offers, as I understand them, that had been extended to employees prior to the hiring freeze. There was no straw poll taken to my knowledge. Mr. Broom made this decision and it was the right decision.”

Smoak went on to say he was never approached by Hartis about whether the magistrate could hire someone.

“Mr. Broom mentioned this to me several days later. He mentioned it was his intention to do this. He did not ask for my assent; he did not need to ask my permission to do this. It was a common sense decision,” he said.

Smoak said he had no knowledge of the situation involving Sheriff Matthews and, like Tucker, expressed frustration with the “non-issue” coming up at a critical time for the county.

“The problem with this -- this prevents us from discussing many important issues the county is facing, including our search for a county administrator,” Smoak said.

Jones said he spoke with Smoak prior to Thursday’s press conference.

“I told him, ‘I can’t believe you believe the words coming out of your mouth,’” said Jones.

District 6 Councilman Tom Gardner, who said he was not involved in the matter on any level, agreed with Smoak’s assessment of the situation.

“I think it’s gone out of proportion, and I hate to see something blow up like this with all the other things we’ve got to do,” Gardner said.

He said it was his understanding, like Smoak, that employment offers had been made without Broom or council’s knowledge prior to the hiring freeze.

“I feel like Frank inquired -- not that he went out soliciting (votes) -- about it and I don’t think anyone voiced any opposition. The administrator did what administrators do,” Gardner said.

Gardner said the other members of council he had spoken to felt the same.

“I’m not upset about it; it doesn’t make me mad (Broom) made a decision. That’s why we hired him,” said Gardner.

Gary, representing District 1, also said there was no straw poll. He said the matter was one of seeking clarification that the hiring freeze was from that Tuesday night forward.

“We wanted to make sure (Broom) knew that we had made commitments prior to the hiring freeze. We couldn’t freeze those people out because we had already made a commitment to these folk,” Gary said.

Gary also said Hartis approached members of council, asking about the new employee he had starting Monday. Gary said the conversation allowed those council members Hartis was speaking with to ensure Broom understood the situation.

“I believe everyone was still around in chambers,” Gary said. “I don’t know if they were part of the conversation or not.”

Miles, who holds the District 3 seat, said Thursday he had only learned of Jones’ press conference that morning and had no comment pending that afternoon’s work session.

Thursday morning, Jones repeated his wish that Wise and the others had asked for a special called meeting to deal with the pending hires.

But he was still sticking to his guns.

“If they hadn’t tried so arrogantly … to defend a wrong -- I’m not going to stand for it. It’s not fair to the media and it’s not fair to the public.”

Broom did not return phone messages seeking comment.

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