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Wilson ouster puts spotlight on county appeals
DSS director's firing sparks discussion of policy
Published Tuesday, September 18, 2012 6:04 pm
by Herbert L. White

Mecklenburg County's appeals process for fired department chiefs may get its own review.

Fired Mecklenburg County Social Services Director Mary Wilson has asked county commissioners to hear her appeal for reinstatement. Under current policy, County Manager Harry Jones, who fired Wilson on Sept. 4, is authorized to decide her status.

The process is drawing scrutiny after County Manager Harry Jones dismissed social services Director Mary Wilson earlier this month. Wilson has filed for a formal appeal with a peer review panel and wants commissioners to give her a hearing.

"The termination proceeding was a complete surprise to me and I will appeal the termination," Wilson wrote in a Sept. 13 letter to commissioners. "I am appealing this termination because it is unfair, unjust and smacks of intimidation aimed at me and my staff."

Mecklenburg policy, adopted in 2008, leaves Jones as sole authority to determine Wilson’s fate – and isn't likely to be changed in the near future.

“We adopted the process long before Mary Wilson was hired and certainly long before she was terminated,” Commissioner Dumont Clarke said. “It’s a process we approved, so that tells you what we think of it.”

Commissioner George Dunlap favors a review of the county’s appeals process to determine if an alternative should be pursued, perhaps during the commissioners’ retreat in February.

“I don’t know, which is why I asked the question about whether or not the county commissioners have reviewed the policy since that time to determine if in fact that is a fair policy,” he said. “What I’ve gotten thus far is there are those who might be willing to destruct that. However, at present they are obligated to follow whatever policies and procedures are already on the books.”

Diane Juffras, associate professor of public law and government at UNC School of Government, said Mecklenburg and Wake are unique in how they terminate employees. Under the State Personnel Act – General Statute NCGS 153A-77 – county commissioners have latitude to cede the termination process of social services and health directors to the top executive. Mecklenburg and Wake – North Carolina’s largest counties – are the only jurisdictions working under the exception.

“From a practical standpoint, that makes a lot of sense,” Juffras said. “If you look at county government, the county manager does the hiring and firing.”

Clarke declined to speak directly to Wilson’s case due to the possibility of litigation, but insists county policy for most employees is similar to private industry.

“That doesn’t occur in most places,” Clarke said. “You don’t have the right to review. People in the private sector get fired and they don’t have an appeal.”

Wilson will get one, but her letter to commissioners urged the panel to grant her an audience.

"I am requesting that you consider how we can have a fair, transparent resolution to this situation," she wrote. "Perhaps a representative sub-set of the BOCC can serve as the review panel. I am open to your ideas to ensure this is a fair process."

Mecklenburg’s county employee manual clearly states Jones’ authority “to appoint and remove subordinate officers, agents and employees for the general administration of County affairs.” Clarke said leaving those decisions up to the county manager has practical benefits, arguing the process shouldn’t be clouded by commissioners’ relationships with directors or political ideology.

“I’m not sure having commissioners review the manager’s judgment would be a good idea,” he said. “I think the decision should not be managed by politicians. I think that’s a recipe for trouble.”

Dunlap said a review panel can suggest a course of action on an appeal, but the ultimately decision rests with the county manager.

 “Once that personnel panel hears the appeal, they make a recommendation to the county manager that they concur with his actions or they think he might choose a different action,” he said. “However, the end result is he makes the final decision.”

Unless Wilson can persuade Jones to reinstate her, she’s likely out of a job. But her situation has opened the door to the possibility of another look at how the county handles dismissals.

“I don’t they would revisit (Wilson’s) case in particular, but I have heard from commissioners who are willing to look at the policy again,” Dunlap said.


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