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Forsyth could fire, rehire county manager

POSTED: September 4, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Rhonda Poston-O’Connor may be out as Forsyth County’s manager, but at least one commissioner isn’t ruling out her return as early as January.

Commissioner David Richard said Chairman Charles Laughinghouse intends to bring Poston-O’Connor back, possibly even as county manager, at the start of 2009.

That’s when two new commissioners will take office, likely changing the dynamics of the commission.

Laughinghouse did not deny the possibility of Poston-O’Connor returning to county government.

"If the situation were such, it could be considered," he said. "I have no problem with her performance, and I don’t have a personal issue with her."

For her part, Poston-O’Connor said she plans to keep her options open.

"I’m certainly going to take some time off," she said. "I can promise you that."

Laughinghouse said any action in Thursday’s called meeting, whose lone agenda item was discussion of Poston-O’Connor, was postponed because the board "needed some time to bring [assistant county manager] Doug Derrer and staff up to date so that we don’t flounder."

Commissioner Linda Ledbetter said an issue about the fiscal year 2008 budget was among the chief problems the commission had with Poston-O’Connor, though she has been written up twice in her tenure with the county.

Citing a pattern of what he described as "withholding information," Commissioner Brian Tam has indicated that Poston-O’Connor will be fired. Tam and Richard voted against hiring her in a 3-2 vote last fall.

Poston-O’Connor said she doesn’t think Thursday’s discussion, which was pushed back to this coming Thursday’s commission meeting, will be postponed again.

Laughinghouse, however, wasn’t sure.

"There’s always a chance it will get postponed, but I don’t know if it will or not," he said.

He said recent actions by the commission were an attempt to blame one person for the board’s mistakes.

"I told them, and they won’t admit it, but the ultimate responsibility lies with the board of commissioners," Laughinghouse said.

Questions about a possible shift of funds arose earlier this month after commissioners received a midyear 2008 budget report from Bill Thomas, the county’s chief financial officer.

The report showed the county’s budget deficit had grown to $6.9 million, an increase of $200,000 since April, and was presented in a way that showed $5 million had been transferred to help cover the shortfall.

Commissioners were concerned that they had not voted on such a transfer. In reality, however, the board had given the go-ahead for just such a possibility when it passed the budget back in August 2007, according to County Attorney Ken Jarrard.

Ledbetter was worried that transferring the money would have left the county reserves shy of $25 million, a benchmark that helps determine the county’s bond rating.

The bond rating has taken on added significance as the county prepares to issue $100 million in bonds for parks, recreation and green space. Voters approved the measure in February.

In addition, voters are being asked in November to approve separate bond referendums to fund construction of a new jail, for $75 million, and sheriff’s headquarters, listed at $16 million.

The county’s current bond rating with financial research company Moody’s Investors Service is classified as Aa1. The bond rating with Standard & Poor’s, another financial researcher, is AA+.

According to county officials, both of the ratings are considered one notch below the best possible bond rating, AAA, which only three counties in the state have: Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett.

Laughinghouse said the commission has only itself to blame for shortcomings or misunderstandings.

"The buck stops with us," he added. "But of course, it’s always easier to blame someone else than accepting responsibility."

The return of Poston-O’Connor could rest well with Jim Boff, who will succeed Ledbetter in the District 5 post after she chose not to seek a second term.

Boff, who defeated Julie Tressler in an Aug. 5 runoff election, drew campaign support from Laughinghouse and Jim Harrell, both of whom support Poston-O’Connor.

Harrell could not be reached for comment Friday, but Boff offered similar thoughts on the matter of misplaced blame.

"I’m not sure I understand what she’s being let go for," he said. "But it is the commission’s responsibility to either accept the information provided by (Poston-O’Connor) or not to accept it."

Boff also weighed in on the question of Poston-O’Connor’s potential return.

"It would depend on the position they were bringing her back for," he said. "Until I had more clarification about what’s going on, I couldn’t say."

The other new commissioner will come from District 4, where it will be either Patrick Bell, who defeated Richard in the July 15 Republican primary, or Democrat Jon Flack.

Poston-O’Connor said there will be more details "to explain the miscommunication about the $5 million."

According to her contract, Poston-O’Connor makes $130,000 a year and can carry over up to 240 hours of compensatory time from year to year. She would be able to cash in the unused time at the end of her employment.

Provided that she is not fired for a felony or misdemeanor involving drug use or gross disregard for moral standards, her severance includes an entire year’s salary, either in one lump sum or monthly payments.

Poston-O’Connor questioned Tam’s allegation that the administration had withheld information from the board.

"I have tried as intensely as I possibly can to be information-transparent," she said. "Transparency is my No. 1 priority for everything that we’re doing."

Richard said the budget issue "points to a weakness in our leadership. Charlie and Jim are on the commission finance committee."

"They’re the ones who got to see the budget before the other commissioners got to see it," he said. "They were supposed to make sure everything was good before the rest of the commission saw it. It’s not just Rhonda’s failure, it’s their failure as well."

Poston-O’Connor contends the issue involving the $5 million came about because of confusion.

"The budget is very large and complex, and it’s got a lot of moving parts in it," she said. "Sometimes it’s difficult to articulate everything to a vast majority of people to ensure everybody understands."

Richard thought otherwise.

"She still doesn’t get it," he said. "There’s no confusion by any of the commissioners about whether the money was transferred or not. We know it was transferred.

"She’s the one that’s trying to set a different record straight than is actually out there."

In March, Poston-O’Connor was written up for "insubordinate actions" stemming from a disagreement with Tam.

Prior to that, she was disciplined in spring 2007 while serving as interim county manager, a post she held for 17 months. She previously had worked as assistant county manager from October 2005 to April 2006.



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