I'll be the first to admit my preternatural wariness about the work of Civitas, the conservative think tank that's part of a sprawling consortium of organizations funded largely by Art Pope and responsible for the reddening of state government and in part for increased appearances by the likes of "Americans for Prosperity" here in our state.
But we have damn too little investigative reporting happening around here, so credit goes where credit's due to Civitas' Andrew Henson for his story Tuesday about the termination of Durham County Social Services chief Gerri Robinson.
As we noted here in our bon voyage to Robinson a couple of weeks back, the DSS chair came to the Bull City's host county after a rocky tenure in Nashville, Tennessee, and hit headwinds early in her term over a controversial child care subsidy idea -- one which was said to have hastened the departure of at least one local non-profit leader involved in early childhood support.
But as commenters here noted at the time, there was a little grey-cloud asterisk hanging over the firing -- namely, the timing. The personnel change came simultaneously with the selection of one County Commissioner Joe Bowser as vice-chair of the DSS board, and with newly-appointed DSS board member Gail Perry getting called up to lead the agency at her very first meeting.
Bowser arrived on the board amidst a summer of controversy, fresh off a sometimes-combative positioning on the controversial 751 South project, and amidst a rather bizarre public battle with the Durham police and mayor's office over the commish's claims that his neighbor was wishing Bowser harm and even allegedly hurling substances of unknown origin over the property line towards Bowser's air conditioning unit.
I know, right? Welcome to our always-unusual local politics. But the story took another turn when Bowser, after getting no seeming satisfaction from the mayor or police chief, himself filed for a mayoral run against popular incumbent Bill Bell, in a move that two different local politicos tell BCR was spurred on at least partially by his internecine neighborhood battle.
Got that? Well, amidst all this activity, Bowser found himself voting for Robinson's ouster as DSS chief, telling the Herald-Sun he was dissatisfied with the department's handling of the Crystal Mangum case -- specifically, with the removal of Mangum's children from a Durham home to be relocated to their father's in domicile in West Virginia. (Bowser also cited concern over staff morale and purported absorption in an accreditation effort.)
But the real kicker in this, in the minds of many in the comments here -- and in the prescient words of my friend Carl Kenney over at his REV-elution blog -- was just what on Earth was up with a person being added to the DSS board; voting to fire the director; and being appointed as the new interim director, all in one meeting.
With that being said, it’s critical that we consider how Perry is chosen to serve on the DSS board after being ousted when Dan Hudgins was Director of DSS. She’s placed on the board for one meeting, votes to terminate the Director and then gets the job. You can smell that stinking fish two miles away. At that same meeting Bowser is chosen to serve as the Vice Chair of the board.
I’m just saying. Sometime a person has to go, but things should be done the right way. Something stinks over at DSS.
Well, Civitas' Henson appears to have been wondering the same thing, too. And he may have gotten closer to the answer than anyone else in the local professional or citizen-journalism spheres.
As Henson notes (emphasis added):
In a surprising and revealing statement, Commissioner Bowser admitted that prior to the pivotal board meeting that ended up in Robinson’s termination and Perry’s appointment, he and DSS Board Chair Stan Holt had discussions with Perry and decided she was to be selected as director. By negotiating an agreement to make Perry the DSS Director, Social Services board business was possibly conducted by a quorum of three members of the four-member board, without any public awareness or oversight—potentially breaking the state’s Open Meetings Laws.
“This was not a decision made in one board meeting,” Bowser said to a Civitas reporter in a recorded phone conversation. “I spoke with her [Perry] before the board meeting and also Stan [Holt] spoke with her before the board meeting. This was a decision we made after we could not get the other two people to come back that we wanted.” Bowser explained that he had tried to pursue other candidates for the DSS Director position, namely Sharon Hirsch, a former DSS Assistant Director, and Dan Hudgins, former DSS Director, but claims neither of them were interested.
We're no expert in North Carolina law, but would note that it would be interesting to know whether the conversations with Perry happened before her selection to join the DSS board, or after her selection but before her first meeting -- though nonetheless, even if no laws were violated, the situation certainly seems to stink worse than BCR's long-departed Fishwrap.
And, as Henson goes on to note, there's the question of conflict of interest for Perry, if she cast the deciding vote for Robinson's termination while knowing she'd be the choice of Bowser and Holt to take the interim slot at a salary of $139,000 per year.
The Civitas story, posted at the organization's website, is a must-read for several reasons:
- Most notably, the story also quotes BOCC chair Michael Page as he expresses extreme displeasure over the whole situation -- something that shows dramatically the very wide rift that's opened between the sometimes-rivals, sometimes-allies on the Board, and which seems to suggest that the days of allegiance are fading further into the past.
- Page's most significant complaint? An allegation by Page to Civitas that Bowser soured on Robinson after she refused to hire a friend of the commissioner's for a job. (Controversy followed Bowser during a previous stint on the BOCC after claims in the local media that he intervened to assist a friend who allegedly had a sour relationship with County manager Mike Ruffin, whose firing Bowser voted for before a Bowser-less BOCC reinstated Ruffin after that year's election.)
- The conservative outlet also alleges that Perry's initial dismissal from DSS was linked to "accusations she used around $3,000 in county money to buy Chik-Fil-A coupons," though her then-boss denies the claim, and with Bowser saying the actual amount was one-fiftieth that tally (and used to reward strong employees.)
New board appointees voting for a staff member's dismissal and themselves getting the post in turn -- after an alleged meeting of the minds?
More whispers of problematic dealings in the halls of local office?
And -- for God's sake -- people brawlin' over Chick-Fil-A coupons??!?
Yours truly has been on a partially-work-related, partially-personally-related absence from blogging of late. But I'm suddenly reminded of what my friend Ellen likes to call this time of year: Durham's silly season, the time every three out of four years or so when people stand for office and our community risks falling on its face depending on who wins at the ballot box.
All I'm sayin' is, this fall's mayoral race promises to be more interesting than ever.
Get ready to take a seat on the sidelines. And don't forget to pack your waffle fries.