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Civitas investigation alleges conflict of interest, open meeting law violation in DSS change

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.

As Kenney put it:

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.


Lois Murphy

It is truly amazing how media outlets ignore the ongoing corruption at the North Carolina School of Science & Mathematics (NCSSM) where in the recent years only blacks have been fired.

Talking about being unethical and stinking fish - I am sure the corruption that goes on at NCSSM smells far worse than stinking fish –imagine smelling sewer contents that have been exposed during recent heat indexes.

I encourage Henson and staff of this outlet to investigate the ongoing corruption at NCSSM and report their findings based upon facts. I am sure an investigation of this matter will never happen.

Additionally, it is beyond my understanding why Commissioner Page did not inform Henson that Ms. Robinson forced three white female managers out of their positions during her tenure at DSS.

Commissioner Page should have remained neutral in this matter and not allowed his personal feelings against Commissioner Bowser cause him to make statements of opinions not facts, which certainly is unbecoming of a minister.

Unfortunately, Commissioner Page has reduced himself to spreading and endorsing rumors although he claims he is a Christian. He of all people should know the power of the “tongue” and how the word of God tells us to chasten it. In addition, he should also know that God wants us to spread brotherly love not rumors and hate.

It saddens me that Commissioner Page and Kennedy are not interested in the truth although both claim to be Christians. Thus, it is not an anomaly why the world is in such turmoil. I am sure neither of them consulted with God regarding their input in matter. I am hopeful in my lifetime blacks will stop being used to destroy blacks.

Certainly, there are rumors regarding both Commissioner Page’s and Kennedy’s preferences, but they are just rumors. Aren’t they?


@Lois: People (who claim to be Christian) and live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. Where I come from, veiled homophobic accusations qualify as spreading rumors and hate.


139,000 !! ?

Cutting that in half would solve a lot of problems.


When I read this story my first thought was who are the Civitas? My next thought was why or what is there connection to Durham County Department of Social Service. After a little research it all made sense. The Civitas group and its members are a conservative group of individuals that support a conservative/Tea Party agenda. Upon investigating further it was interesting to learn that the former DSS Director is a current member. So I'm I to believe that Civitas member Andrew Henson just happen to stubble across and believe that this was a wrongful termination. I don't think so. Doesn't this group and its' members have enough on there plate advocating against liberal policy makers and our current Presidential administration. Enough said..

Natalie Foreman

Shenanigans like this happen all the time, especially here in Durham. Civitas could give a damn about any of it -- unless it happens to support their completely racist belief that social services of any kind are nothing but a front to overpay black professionals and suck the public coffers dry to give blacks money they don't deserve. I cannot believe you played into their hands by giving them credence at all -- the fact that they are uncovering real problems here does not make them a legitimate news source and we would all be better off if we ignored them until they just started being upfront about their agenda and stopped masquerading as do-gooders. They're just desperately in search of the next ACORN and can't wait to find it. They're hacks and should be treated as such.Their goal is ultimately to disable all public services and the public schools. They are going to bring this state down if people don't start paying attention to their agenda and the danger they pose. Again -- the corruption they are exposing is real. But Civitas is far worse than anything they are pointing a finger at. They're trying to buy control of our democracy and use their ability to buy media coverage and elections to ram their extremist rightwing agenda down all of our throats. Don't be distracted by cherry-picking of "corruption." I'm not seeing them looking into the dozens of conflicts of interest between their donors and legislation coming straight out of our General Assembly this year that is anything but in the public interest.


Natalie, while I share your suspicions of Civitas, in this case, they're on target identifying some of the ethics and governance issues. I've never met the former DSS director and don't, as they say, have a dog in this fight--but the actions of the DSS board in this case and the further involvement of the BOCC & county manager reported in today's N&O raise serious questions about the legality of her firing, the violations of state meeting laws & HR policies involved in the behind-the-scenes arrangements to appoint Gail Perry, and the extremely questionable ethics of Perry's own vote to fire Robinson knowing she was then to be appointed acting director. Perry's appointment was then voted on by TWO members of a 5-member DSS board (Bowser & Holt)??? We don't need Civitas or their right-wing agenda to know that this is shady and ethically questionable behavior from our government officials. Given Bowser's history of questionable involvement in HR issues in the past (pressuring the county to hire friends, engineering Ruffin's rapidly reversed firing a few years ago, etc), this situation is additionally suspicious. I'm not familiar enough with Robinson's performance to render a judgement on it--but the handling of it has been extremely badly handled. Bowser, quite simply, need to go.

Finally--it is unfortunate that it is Civitas that has made many of these facts public. We used to have a local paper that did a fairly good job at covering local politics and issues. Sadly--those days are gone as the new owners of the Herald Sun have decimated their newsroom and reporting staff. There's no one left there to cover stories like this--and the opening that leaves for organizations like Civitas with such repugnant and dangerous political agendas is unfortunate.

For Real

While I agree with the other comments about the political agenda of Civitas, they are on the money about exposing this transparent unethical dirty deed by the DSS Board and the Durham County Commissioners.

Thanks to the N&O for having the fortitude (i.e. balls) to expose these highly questionable actions of elected and appointed officials (see the article in today's N&O: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/08/27/1439559/dss-ouster-sparks-fight-among.html).

The more you sniff, the worse this smells. You may find some more people who are no longer with DSS had a hand in this. The N&O named at least one today.

I take my hat off to Michael Page for coming forward. I remember Becky Heron's explicit disdain for DSS and former employees Dan Hudgins and Gail Perry. At the time of Gail Perry’s departure from DSS, Heron was very vocal about Gail Perry's alleged mismanagement of funds. She's pretty quiet about this whole mess now, even though she was still on the BOCC in July and was involved in this current matter as one of her last official actions as a Commissioner. This happened in July and she was still on BOCC when she voted in June to appoint Perry to the DSS Board. Reckhow is also implicated, and she too has been mighty silent. It seems that the county attorney and county manager might also be involved in this? Did they know this was going to take place? Did Bowser seek and follow advice about HR policies and procedures? Did the attorney and manager approve of Bowser’s actions, or did Bowser shoot from the hip and take this action solo without seeking the advice of the county attorney?

I hope reporters from the Independent and the Herald-Sun join the N&O in investigating these serious matters. In my opinion, it warrants a much deeper look and perhaps a fuller investigation by the NC attorney general's office or the governor's office. What kind of example is this setting when taxpayers support DSS to help Durham’s vulnerable citizens and instead we get personality conflicts, personal agendas and ethically and legally questionable actions? All of this appears to be orchestrated by an elected official that local papers reported a few weeks ago was tying up the time of our mayor and police to investigate his accusations that his neighbor was firing something like mustard gas through his home air conditioner?

Finally @Lois: You suggested this was racial because three white women left DSS. Let's not play the race card here: one was Asian, one was white, and one was Latina. I agree with Anon above that this has more to do with Bowser's questionable ethics and what appears to be personal agendas and vendettas than with any racial or religious issues or "preferences" you allude to.


Question? How does a member of the Civitas direct a program (DSS) that main focus is social programs and servicing the needy. Seem to me Ms. Robinson should have never been hired.


Anon, While I respect your opinions and you did make some good points, I would like to point out some facts as I see them. While I don't personally know Mr. Bowser I do know it is the duty of an elected official to serve the people. My understanding of this matter is that there has been numerous complaints from the public and DSS staff about Ms. Robinsons' leadership, and these complaints where brought to the attention of other Commissioners not just Mr. Bowser alone. As a tax payer and voter myself when I have a problem with state and local government I contact my representative if I can't get resolve at the lower level and expect the people I elected to get involved. And the history you refer to concerning the firing of County Manager Mike Ruffin I think it took 3 commissioners votes to terminate his employment not just Mr. Bowser's vote.


@PhD. There may have been complaints about Robinson. I don't know. I do know that there are appropriate and ethical ways to address performance issues. I know that joining a board, voting to fire someone at your first meeting, and then taking her job for 10k more than robinson made is not one of them.

And it may have taken 3 commissioners to pull the Ruffin maneuver, but Bowser was the ringleader of that debacle and was upfront about it. That mess too revealed a tendency toward backroom deals, behind the scenes operations, and a disregard for due process. I'm not necessarily a Ruffin fan but Bowsers desire for revenge over what he perceived as a slight of one of his friend gave Mike Ruffin an extended vacation at taxpayer expense and cost Bowser his seat in the next election. Let's hope we're as lucky this time. Joe Bowser has no business in a leadership position given his fondness for these kinds of doings.


Anon, Unfortunately because you nor I are elected officials I think ,your perception that Mr. Bowser was the ringleader in the debacle may be a little off the mark. Again I remember at the time of the termination former county commissioners Mary Jacob and Rev. Phil Cousin were the other members who voted to fire Mr. Ruffin and I don't believe they would have gone along with as you call it a maneuver without accessing all the facts in the matter. If this was the case as you see it then I guest you believe the other well educated members who voted with Mr. Bowser couldn't think for themselves. Even if Mr. Bowser desire was revenge do you honestly believe two other intelligent adults would have gone along with that? If there had not been a plan to rehire Mr. Ruffin after the election of Mr. Lewis Cheek when there would be a white majority from what I read and he had remained terminated he would not have had as you referenced an extended vacation at the taxpayers expense. Which of the remaining two commissioner was the ringleader in the plot to bring Mr. Ruffin back?

Kevin Davis

Interesting discussion, all. A couple of points.

First, I am about as much of a non-fan of Civitas and Art Pope as you will find. I do, however, give them credit for getting this information into the public record. Virginia Bridges of the N&O had a story this morning on the matter, too, though without all of the on-the-tape assertions that Civitas found.

Second, I hope Im clear that I am not saying there may not have been good reasons for a change in DSS leadership. The history Robinson had in Nashville, coupled with claims in the N&O today by Bowser that there may have been significant complaints within the department, need close scrutiny. The tempest in a teapot over child care subsidies was also worrisome, especially given the resulting departure of a local non-profit leader.

My concern here, though, is with the propriety of three board members deciding outside a meeting to vote to terminate Robinson and appointing one to the post. And the allegations that Bowser might have sought jobs for friends is equally worrisome.

I have no quarrels, necessarily, with the outcome -- as long as the process was followed appropriately and there were no shenanigans.


@PhD: I don't want to rehash the Ruffin business. I brought it up because the seeming irregularities of how that was handled are very similar to those in the Robinson case and because Bowser was central to both. His penchant for politics of personality conflict and what appears to be backroom dealings leaves a sour taste in my mouth. But it is really this most recent situation with DSS that concerns me now.

As I said, I don't know Robinson and wouldn't recognize her if I passed her on the street. If there were complaints made privately to elected or appointed officials, I would have no way of knowing. I don't recall hearing any public complaints. According to Michael Page her performance reviews had been high. I can believe there were some dissatisfied employees and some changes at higher program management levels. There generally are when leadership in an organization changes. These changes can make it difficult to decide where the line is between setting a new direction and divisive leadership.

My point is that the way in which this decision seems to have been made is highly irregular. As I’ve gathered from the reports here, at Civitas, and in the N&O, there were behind the scenes conversations among BOCC members and the county manager about “changes” regarding Robinson. There were also conversations among some DSS board members and conversations among some members of the BOCC about both whether Gail Perry should be appointed to the DSS board and whether she should be appointed acting director to replace Robinson. According to reports, Joe Bowser was involved in all of these conversations on both Boards. There were also conversations with Perry about whether she would consider an acting director appointment. Again, Bowser admits to these conversations. If it walks like a duck . . . .

As significantly, I am simply flabbergasted that Gail Perry would come to her first DSS Board meeting, vote to fire the DSS director, and—at the same meeting—be appointed and accept the appointment as interim director to replace the person SHE HAD JUST VOTED TO FIRE!!!!!! At $10,000 more/year than the fired director had been making. This is—at the very least—an enormous conflict of interest for Perry. That such a thing was allowed to happen at the very least calls into question the ethical judgment of Bowser and Stan Holt, the two DSS board members who supported this process.

For Real

@PhD: How could DSS hire a Civitas member for director? I don’t know. But do you mean to say that people should or shouldn’t be hired on the basis of organizations they belong to as private citizens? I thought freedoms of assembly and association were constitutional rights. I can’t stand Civitas and all that they represent, but do you have proof that Robinson was a Civitas member and, if she is, do you have proof that her affiliation affected her job performance in such a negative way that it would warrant firing without warning?

I really agree with Bull City Rising here—that the real issue here is how this decision was made outside of regular meetings and how Robinson was treated. Its’ hard to tell if this was a he said-she said situation or whether there were hard facts of actions that could be cause for immediate dismissal. Was Robinson given a warning? Was she in corrective action? Had anyone talked with her about problems with her performance? Was all (or any) of this done in consultation with Human Resources and the county attorneys to insure that laws and policies were followed and her rights weren’t violated?

I also have questions about how Perry could even be informed enough to make a decision like this at her first and only meeting as a DSS board member. Did she know Robinson? Had she worked with her at DSS? Had she reviewed performance reports, letters of complaint or personnel records before voting to fire Robinson? If not, where and how did she get her information? If so—that would raise a whole other set of ethical and legal problems. To vote to fire someone and then to take their job—and on top of that to negotiate a salary $10,000 higher than the outgoing director’s (doubling her current salary) is outrageous. Talk about losing your moral compass. Seems like we need a compass to find a moral compass here.

How stupid do these people think Durhamites are? Do they really think they can just disregard ethics and possibly legal responsibilities and that people in Durham will just sit back and shut up about it? If you’re going to be slick, at least be good at it.


Anon, You already rehashed Ruffin business in your 7:15 posting where you made comparisons about this issue and the Ruffin issue. I think your reference to backroom dealings and politics of personality conflict can be found in one form or another in all of Durhams elected bodies. I remember Councilman Brown and former Councilman John Best started there political career off by plotting to fire then city manager Marcia Conner's before they were ever elected. Just recently the city of Durham Human Relations Director was terminated and its been said that several council member behind the scene had pushed for the city manager to fire her. Look how our Republican state leaders backdoor dealed to overturn the Govenors' vetos and I'm not even going to talk about the Washington debt ceiling debacle, my point is while most of us only know what we read on this matter through our local media outlets we should not be so quick to make negative statements about persons or processes that we don't have full knowledge of. I find it strange that with all the negative things being said about Mr. Bowser through the different media outlet about his perceived backdoor dealing he was the top vote getter in the 2008 county Commissioners race. I guest people have short memories.

John Martin

This case raises troubling questions about the whole system of county governance. In Durham we have an appointed county manager just as the city government has an appointed city manager. A little history (I'm an historian, so indulge me): the city-manager system was a Progressive Era reform aimed at getting rid of corruption that was perceived to be widespread in big-city political machines. Elected mayors, it was believed, would appoint their unqualified cronies to city offices, and then together they would plunder everything they could, using some of their ill-gotten gains to reward voters who put them in office in the first place. One defender of this system, George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, called this "honest graft." (I'm not making this up, and he was dead serious.) By contrast, Progressives proposed a city-manager who would be a non-political "professional." He, in turn, would appoint other "professional" managers who would direct an honest and efficient city government. That's the theory. In the Durham city government, the city council appoints the city manager, the city attorney, and the city clerk. All of the other department heads are appointed by the city manager. The City Council does not have direct control over them, and cannot hire and fire them.

Now look at the County. What are we doing with a DSS Board that hires and fires a county department head? Logically the director of DSS ought to report to the county manager, and the county manager ought to be able to hire and fire the county department heads. How can the county manager have any control over departments if the department head answers to someone else? In this case the county manager either becomes a figure head who can't do anything, or he becomes a conspirator who plots coup d'etats behind the scenes. Neither makes any sense to me.

And what is a county commissioner doing on this DSS board in the first place? It gives him far more influence over that department than the other commissioners, and that is unfair. It also subverts the entire idea behind the manager system: to take hiring decisions out of the hands of elected officials. There is some controversy over what role Joe Bowser played in DSS hiring. Simply taking him at his word is problematic enough: he claims he merely "introduced" applicants to the director. But knowing that Bowser is on the DSS board, and can get you fired, obviously makes those "introductions" of special important to any director who would like to keep his job. Bowser's friends should have to "introduce" themselves the same way any other job applicant does: through an impartial recruitment process, and elected officials should stay out.

Or. . .I personally have never much liked the city-manager system. It only pretends to take politics out of hiring, as this case amply demonstrates. I would prefer to have an elected County Executive who would have department heads reporting to him, and then he would have to take responsibility at the polls for what goes on in the county government. This is the way some cities and counties are still governed, and it is the way every state is governed.

But in the meantime, the DSS Board ought to be a strictly advisory body, and the County Manager should be given the authority to hire and fire the DSS director. And no county commissioner should sit on the DSS board.

For Real

Today, the Herald Sun finally decided to get involved with the DSS story. They should ask Robinson was fired just shy of her 2-year anniversary. Why wait so long to take any action if her performance was such a problem? It seems that the decision to fire Robinson came about quickly and with little formal discussion or review of her performance by the BOCC.
According to Michael Page, Robinson had good evaluations and on paper was meeting performance goals. If this is true, why was she fired? Doesn’t the DSS Board meet with her monthly? Isn’t the reason there’s a BOCC representative on the DSS Board to keep the BOCC informed about DSS issues? If there were problems with Robinson’s performance, why weren’t all Commissioners made formally aware of it? Why does it seem their discussions of Robinson’s performance were outside formal meetings and reporting and evaluation processes? Did the DSS board or Commissioners speak clearly and directly with Robinson about complaints they were receiving about her “brazen and vicious style of management” (Joe Bowser, H-S, 8/28/2011)? Were these complaints investigated and evaluated? Were these complaints coming from people in leadership roles who reported directly to Robinson? Were they having difficulty adjusting to change? To new job expectations and demands? To a different style of supervision and standards of accountability? Had they received bad evaluations from Robinson? Had any of them been candidates for the DSS Director position when Robinson was hired? Could there be sour grapes or competition behind some of these complaints or behind Robinson’s so called bad behavior?
Did anyone ask Robinson to respond to the complaints and explain her side of the story? Did anyone ask Robinson why long-term employees were leaving or long term contracts were cancelled? Did the DSS Board ever get Robinson and the email senders in the same room to discuss or resolve the complaints? Was Robinson ever given a letter of reprimand or put on corrective action and given an action plan for improving her performance? Or did the DSS Board and BOCC move straight to firing?
Did the DSS Board ever reach out to DSS line staff for feedback on morale, DSS leadership or other issues related to Robinson’s performance? If not, how do they know how widespread the complaints were? Did they evaluate how much of what line staff heard about Robinson came directly from leadership staff’s opinion of her? Could it be that the same people complaining to the Board were contributing to staff discontent and low morale? Perhaps line staff were less than satisfied with some long-term employees in leadership positions and not so upset by Robinson’s style or some of the departures at issue here? Could it be that Robinson was listening to the people on the front lines who do the heavy lifting of service provision at DSS? This isn’t the first time morale has been bad at DSS—there have always been revolving doors in CPS, Medicaid, and food stamps long before Robinson. This may be the first time upper management has been given a hard look. Service work is hard work—heavy workloads, relatively low pay, and often, poor leadership and supervision. These are chronic issues—not specific to Robinson. Where has the board been up to now?


John--Thanks for the history and for placing this issue in a bigger context. Generally I agree with your argument that hiring and firing key department heads should fall to the county manager.

I'm a bit confused on where the authority here is, actually. Until all this happened, I thought that the County Commissioners hired & fired the DSS director. But it seems to fall to this Board that most County citizens know nothing about and have no say in appointing.

I find this especially distressing since I think social services is the biggest item in the county budget. A lot of our tax dollars and resources go to DSS. I'm actually OK with this. I like Durham's commitment to providing assistance to our needy or struggling neighbors, and I think this commitment reflects well on our community overall. And I respect the people who work at DSS. Social work is hard work--it is often emotionally stressful, it doesn't usually pay that well, and its gotten harder and harder as the economy has worsened, budgets have shrunk and the need for food, medical, housing, and other assistance has expanded dramatically. So it is actually important who is leading DSS and how.

But because it is such a big part of our budget, I do think its especially troubling that oversight of the highest leadership seems to fall to the DSS Board.

Maybe we should, as you suggest, revisit this whole structure. Is it set up this way because of some state law that requires it to be this way? If so, maybe the Commissioner rep to the DSS board could be replaced by the County manager (or rep). This would at least remove part of the politics.

John Martin

Kelly--I honestly don't know the answer to your question about why we have this strange structure. Until this came up, I would have said that the county manager appoints and fires the DSS director. The county website says the following:

"The County Manager serves as the chief administrator of the County. The Manager is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the Board of Commissioners. The Manager supervises and coordinates the activities of the County departments for the Board, seeing that all orders and policies are carried out. The Manager also works to ensure that the policies and guidelines mandated by both federal and North Carolina state statutes are implemented. The Manager also recommends an annual budget. . ."

How can he "supervise and coordinate the activities" of a department when he cannot appoint or remove its director? About all he can do to influence a department is to reward them or punish them with his budget recommendations. But an ultimate decision on that is in the hands of the County Commission. This is a formula for truly Byzantine politics, and that's what we seem to have gotten in this case.

Now that I look more closely at the County website, I see that there is also a Public Health Board. Do they appoint the Public Health Director? I don't know. But at least the Public Health Board has posted minutes of their meetings. The DSS Board has nothing of the sort posted.

Part of the problem in Durham is that the same twelve to fifteen people seem to perpetually get elected to every office. Bill Bell was a county commissioner for years before he was elected mayor. Joe Bowser is now a county commissioner and is also running for mayor. Steve Schewel was on the Board of Education and is now running for city council. Becky Heron, until she stepped down this year, had been on the county commission since she got off Noah's Ark with Howard Clement, and Ellen Reckow has been a county commissioner nearly as long. I appreciate the dedication to public service these people have exemplified. (And their perennial challengers are worse: Freda Black, anyone? Victoria Peterson?) But it does seem that the county government in particular is overdue for someone to look at it with fresh eyes, and a willingness to change an unintelligible structure.


You're right on the minutes. I see the DSS Board meetings announced in the Herald-Sun, but I've never seen any minutes. As the board of a public agency, I would think minutes would be public. Maybe some citizens need to start attending those meetings. I'm sure they would have closed sessions if they had to discuss specific clients or cases as well as specific personnel matters, but maybe more public attention and accountability would prevent the kinds of ridiculous actions we've seen recently.


John,Your right part of the problem is these people in Durham stay in these elected roles so long they become complacent with the duties and believe they own the seat.No one needs to serve in an elected role since they got off Noah's Ark.While I respect there years of service to the citizens of Durham, it's time for new eyes and new vision.Maybe it's time for Durham voters to consider becoming a term limit municipal. And Kelly, this is the chain of command for Durham County DSS. There is a DSS board, two members are appointed by the Commissioners after an application process opens and close. The commission chairperson appoints a commissioner to serve as the liaison to the DSS board and the State has there appointees. The DSS Director is hired by the Board and then the Board present there choice to the County Commissioners. The commissioners liaison reports DSS activities to the remaining four board members that's why its hard for me to believe that the chair had no ideal what was going on with this county service. There has been no other reports from other Durham Co.commissioners that they had no knowledge of DSS problems. Strange.

For Real

Apparently there was a plan on June 27 at the BOCC when Bowser kept pressing to approve a new board member.ASAP. Reckhow and Heron played the I want to think about this game well when Bowser kept pushing this appointment. He made it clear he wanted a third member before the next DSS meeting They were pretending to resist his request at that meeting knowing all along the plot was to get Gail Perry in to cast the vote they needed to get rid of Robinson. Reckhow mentioned Mike Ruffin in the N&O 8/27, she said she consulted with him and he indicated a change needed to occur, "which carried a lot of weight with me".Ruffin declined to comment.Page had to know something was going on within his own board. Did Ruffin contact Page at all? Did Reckhow talk to Page about her discussion with Ruffin? The county manager has no power to fire or hire DSS directors did he talk to Page and all of the commissioners? It was clear watching the live broadcast of the meeting from home that something was going down, just didn't know what. Think this stinks? Looks like they are all scrambling to get out of the way of bus.


The legal powers and duties of county social services boards are defined by state statute (by North Carolina’s General Assembly – not the County). See, G.S 108.

There are 5 members on the DSS Board. The Durham County Board of Social Service Board members are appointed as follows:
2 – Durham County (one seat is reserved for a county commissioner)
2 – NC State (state appointees)
1 – At-Large (selected by the 4 appointed members of the DSS Board)

Frank Hyman

Not sure who said it, but Bowser did not come in first in the May Democratic primary that determines who will be on the County Commission. He came in 4th after Reckhow, Heron and Page.

He did well then and in the November election largely because lots of black voters who came out to vote for a 'uniter" meaning Obama, also followed the Committee endorsement and voted for a divider, meaning Bowser.

John Martin

Thanks to Newman for pointing us to the NC statute that dictates how this board is set up and what its responsibilities are. However he is not quite correct in stating that "one seat is reserved for a county commissioner." The statute actually says: "The board of commissioners shall appoint one member who may be a county commissioner. . ." This does not obligate the county commission to appoint a commissioner, and this case well illustrates the perils of doing so.

The statute also says: "The board of social services of every county shall appoint a director of social services in accordance with the merit system rules of the State Personnel Commission. Any director dismissed by such board shall have the right of appeal under the same rules."

"Merit system rules." That's a good one. If MIchael Page is correct about Ms. Robinson's performance evaluations, the Board will have a hard time sustaining their decision on appeal. I suspect the county will end up agreeing to a monetary settlement to make this whole mess go away.


@John Martin: There are benefits and "perils" to appointing a county commissioner to one of the two county slots. The practice in Durham has been to reserve that seat for a county commissioner.


Mr. Hyman, I think your statement on why Mr. Bowser did well in the 2008 election borders on being a little racist. To say that black voters only voted for Mr. Bowser because of the Durham committee endorsement is like saying the only reason white voters voted for Reckhow and Heron is because of the Peoples Alliance endorsement . I've been actively voting since the age of 18 and I've voted for black candidates as well as white candidates without the help of the Durham Committee, Friends of Durham, nor the Peoples Alliance. Are you saying that in the 2008 election people of color only voted for people of color because of Obama and the Committee? I think not. Unless you personally contacted every person that voted for Mr. Bowser in 2008 then your statement is incorrect. And one more thing did Rev. Page and Ms. Howerton also win because of black voters and the Durham Committee?


@John Martin: I suspect you might be right on the settlement front and the ultimate costs to the county for this bungled action. The whole thing has been clumsy and mishandled.

For Real

@Kelly & John Martin: Yes, a big purse for Robinson and a big salary for Perry. This board is amazing. In just a single DSS Board meeting, they can fire one director, hire an interim director and find an additional 10K to beef up the salary of the interim director--and she didn't even come in as an experienced director. Wow,you would think the county is rolling in money. And how many years did county employees go without a raise? Hardly seems fair.

One more question: Did Perry retire from DSS or resign? If she retired, has she been collecting a pension? Can you retire and receive a pension and a salary at the same time from the county/state?


ha. this almost seems as fetid as the TARP program, not to mention the Fed's necessitating FOIA on the subsidies to the keystone institutions of western capitalism. Aren't we all just Predator Drones For Freedom, now?


I just want to know why THE REVEREND Michael Page isn't discussing how he has helped several people from his church get jobs in County Government. We should discuss this too.

Or we could talk about how he was bent over Rev. Height's desktop at Greater St. Paul, taking it in the rear until he sued the church after Height kicked his @ss for cheating on him with another gay preacher. But potential corruption is only relevant to the media when it relates to Joe Bowser. Let's talk about Page's dirty laundry since he wants to go after Joe.


hold up,- am i supposed to be offended because a preacher was getting some, he cheated, or my boy ain't getting the shaft?

Please no homophobes

@The Exposer: You comments are offensive and out of place. If you want to be hateful and spread homophobic gossip, I'm sure you can find forums where people like that sort of thing. This generally isn't one of them. This entire discussion string has been mostly discussion of the policy and legal and ethical implications of the issues at hand.

Please take your personal, hateful, bigoted ad hominem attacks someplace else.

Hilda E. Davis

Social Services (State office) was notified that Carteret County Judge Peter Mack gave Temp. Custody to a father in Fla that hadn't seen his son in 7 years without checking his criminal record in Florid or NC which both are quite long. He even set aside a $10,000. past due child support warrant for his arrest when it wasn't even part of the Motion being heard. The child is scared to death of his father who is bio-polar, a drug addict and alcholic. He refused to even look at the background search, criminal record and the fact that he uses another mans name and SS number, which the child is aware of how the father and step g/father laugh about. The child told Judge Mack he didn't want to go back to Fla after summer vacation, and the judge screamed at the child he wasn't telling him what he was going to do, he was going back to Fla. SS here in Carteret County refused to look at the criminal record or take action on 3 occassions, stating it wasn't their job since he was residing in Fla., which is false since the custody issue is being heard here in NC. After contacting the local office with no response, as well as the state office, the child let family know that SS in Florida saw the child who was with his g/mother, father and father's g/friend, and was scared to say anything, afraid his father would go ballistic (his word) like he did after SS in Fla went to the home previously. There is no justice for a child. If something happens to this child, his blood will be on the hands of Judge Peter Mack and SS in both states. Say prayers for his safety. By the way, Judge Mack is the same crooked judge that signed a fraudulent "Annulment" for an illegal, when neither the Motion or Order outlined any reason under N.C.Law allowing an Annulment. The DA's office authorized the arrest, were provided all the evidence needed, even the illegals own admission during discovery that he was still married to his Lebanese with in Lebanon, yet the DA and his assistant refused to take it to the Grand Jury, but removed it from the Court Calendar stating INS wouldn't allow him to return to NC because of the charge, which is false. INS would have no knowledge of this, as there is no outstanding warrant for his arrest, and his attorney on the Bigamy charge is our ex-DA...ask me if we have a crooked system? Every attorney that's touched this case is just as crooked as the Judge. GOD BLESS OUR COUNTRY AND HELP IT OVER RIDE THE CORRUPTNESS AND EVIL ACTS OF THOSE INVOLVED.

Steve Bocckino

I'd bet THE EXPOSER wouldn't write that hateful screed if he (or she) had to sign his name to it.

His mother would be ashamed of him.


@Steve: I know. I can understand that there are times when people might need to post things anonymously, especially in a discussion like this where things like fear of retaliation on the job are a possible concern.

It's striking how the people go off and make such hateful remarks as THE EXPOSER'S-and those remarks are usually not just mean or petty or spiteful but also racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist or some combination of all of them--such people generally don't have the courage or integrity to sign their names.

For Real

Why should we care who Michael Page is having sex with? That’s his personal business. I'm concerned about the county getting screwed. The issue here is the underhanded way this DSS deal went down and the number of people who are implicated in it. The commissioner's job is to make sure the county's business is taken care of in an open and above board and nondiscriminating way. The DSS Board & other commissioners (Bowser, Stan Holt, Heron & Reckow) and the county manager are all scrambling and back peddling now and probably will throw each other under the bus before this is all over with.


Is this blog dead?


Joe Bowser quoted in today's N&O: "It is obvious that the intelligent people understand exactly what we were doing in trying to protect the community," Bowser said. And those "that were not intelligent did not know" and continue "rattling along" about the process, he said.

Here's a word of advice for Joe Bowser: "The process" you speak so dismissively of--the ethically questionable way in which Gail Perry came onto the DSS board, voted to fire the director, and then was offered and accepted her position all in a single DSS Board meeting, the behind-the-scenes discussions you had with some DSS Board members & Durham commissioners & Ms Perry--is important. Those who expect our elected and appointed officials to adhere to ethical processes are not "rattling along." This is not the first time you've accused those who don't agree with you of being unintelligent or stupid. You were accusing the entire DSS board of this just over a year ago. We are not unintelligent. We are engaged citizens and voters. Do not insult us.


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