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County Commission Fires Harry Jones

Robert Lahser
Charlotte Observer

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

His firing was swift, and seemed well-orchestrated. After a 6-2 vote with 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.

Jones, 63, Mecklenburg’s fourth manager, initially tried to address the board – until Chairwoman Pat Cotham told him he couldn’t. Finally, he quietly stepped away from the dais chair he’s occupied for 13 years.

Cotham told Jones his office would be secured and his personal belongings delivered to him.

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, 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.”

The board began meeting Tuesday at 5 p.m. in closed session. Jones was not in the session.

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 team of managers. 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 new $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.

List of missteps

He’d 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, 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, becoming belligerent toward a few. Others say he was upset, but never berated or got aggressive toward commissioners.

Mounting problems

As a county protest over the revaluation widened, other problems mounted.

In early 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.

Charlotte Observer staff writers Ely Portillo, April Bethea and Fred Clasen-Kelly contributed.