Southampton OKs reorganization

Published 1:33 pm Saturday, December 7, 2013

COURTLAND—Following discussion in both closed and open sessions toward the end of its November meeting, a majority of Southampton’s supervisors approved a staff reorganization that’s intended to help the county deal with both imminent and long-range projects, among other needs. When and how the decision was made troubles two members, but most of the others say they are at peace with their votes.

First, though, Lynette Lowe will become the deputy county administrator and chief financial officer to Mike Johnson, county administrator. Lowe is already finance director and will continue to handle some responsibilities of that position even after her new title becomes effective Jan. 1, the same date as the others. Her new salary will be $77,603, said Johnson.

June Steele, an accountant, will become the finance manager, and her new salary will be $56,447.

Cindy Edwards, administrative assistant to Johnson, will become an accountant, and her new salary will be $38,088. Who will take her place is yet to be determined.

“We were waiting to try to save money and evaluate the best way to restructure,” Johnson said when questioned why the decision was made on Nov. 25.

The shifting of responsibilities is calculated to save the county money. In his presentation to the board, Johnson showed that the annual cost of filling a deputy administrator position at the entry level is $88,756. But the annual cost of reorganization, including salary and fringe benefits, is $72,069. The reorganization is 18.8 percent less than filling the position at the entry level.

“The biggest thing is unmet needs,” he continued. “We have projects within the first six months of the calendar, such as roadway improvements for Enviva, a sewer force main to serve that project and we’ve been notified to receive a planning study grant to work with the city about sharing utilities.”

Indeed, the county has been missing out on getting grants that can be used to pay project expenses, he said.

As to why the restructuring was not publicized or put into a public hearing format, Johnson cited the Code of Virginia, and said that “personnel matters are not subject to public hearings.”

But, he added that while discussion was initially done in closed session, the proposal was also talked about and then voted in open session even after everyone else was gone.

The supervisors’ voting was 5 to 2, with Dr. Alan Edwards and Glenn Updike in opposition.

That timing is what bothers those two supervisors, particularly Edwards, who said he ran for office on keeping county government as transparent as possible.

“The main and probably the only reason I opposed it was because it was voted on after a closed meeting,” said Edwards. “It should have been presented to the public and then voted on. We were voted down.”

Updike said he has several reasons for voting no.

“The first reason is that two years ago the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously not to fill any positions without prior board approval in open session. I think we violated those rules,” he said.

“Second, at the last budget meeting, not a single citizen or supervisor suggested to fill the position [of deputy county administrator]. Even Johnson said wasn’t necessary at the time.

“Third, I feel that any position, which is supported public money, should be open to any citizen.

“Fourth, here we go behind closed doors.

“Fifth, we didn’t have any money in the budget for it.

“Sixth, it’s preferential treatment.”

Updike said that when [administrative assistant] John Mendenhall brought his few years of experience, he got $65,000 and Lowe will be getting $77,000.

“Starting them off at the top of the salary scale is ridiculous,” he said.

Updike also asked that even if the reorganization were not covered by state code, should it not have been advertised any way?

In contrast, four of the five supervisors contacted believe they acted properly, beginning with Carl Faison of the Boykins District.

“As Mr. Johnson pointed out in his presentation, we’re just not equipped to handle all the projects. This [reorganization] will equip us so that someone can be on top of it,” he said. “Also, we want to have better communication with the towns, and this is a much better opportunity.”

“I think we made a good choice in this reorganization,” Faison continued. “We want to be ready. I think everything was handled well.”

Bruce Phillips of the Capron District said he voted for the restructuring, “because the county has been working on a skeleton staff for some time, and there are projects that we’re facing both nearby and in the future.”

He also mentioned the Rose Valley Road enhancement, the sewer main for Enviva and the regional sewer project. Plus, the county’s looking to obtain a grant from the state.

“Mike just can’t handle it all,” said Phillips. “Lynette is going to maintain some of her previous job description. She’ll be a real asset on the side of grant writing and maintaining financial aspects of the county.”

He recalled Mendenhall’s grant-writing “more than paid his salary and saved the county money.”

Phillips pointed out that Lowe, Steele and Edwards are “people already trained and dedicated.”

“We’ve been elected to represent the best interests of the county,” he said, “and I think that’s what we’ve been doing. And we will accomplish more with less money.”

Ronald West of the Berlin/Ivor District, also sees wisdom in using current employees for needed tasks.

“I believe in promoting from within,” said the board vice chairman, adding that should be done before bringing in someone from the outside.

“I see a need for a deputy county administrator,” said West. “In the past when John Mendenall was with us, we had a distinct advantage. He wrote and found $700,000-plus in grants to help with projects.”

The reorganization frees up the administration to look for such money.

“Mike’s doing an outstanding job, but he already has a full-time job,” West said. “He’s one man and can only do so much.”

Like his aforementioned colleagues, Barry Porter of the Franklin District upheld the need for approving the reorganization.

“We have certain needs in the county not being met,” he said, noting there’s no one to shepherd grants, oversee major projects, coordinate town and county activities and deal with SPSA and recycling issues.

“Mike Johnson can’t do everything. He works 12 to 16 hours a day,” Porter continued. “There are people who think he doesn’t do anything.”

In choosing the option of restructuring versus hiring outside, the supervisor said, “What we decided is more efficient and less costly.”

He echoed Johnson’s remark that a reorganization hadn’t been done before in order to keep costs down. But such projects pile up, and in order to deal with them effectively, the majority of the board approved the change so that Lowe and others could begin their new work, said Porter.

All that takes time, the supervisor added, and the vote in November gives Johnson an extra month to implement them.

“It can’t be done overnight,” added Porter.

He also said the issue was to be discussed in the closed session preceding the regular meeting.

But there were so many other topics before the board that the matter had to be carried over to a second closed session.

“We’re not trying to hide this from any body,” Porter said, explaining that while specifics about people were talked about in closed session, as required, all else was done again in open session.

“We even discussed delaying vote,” he said. “I have no problem with what we did.”

“The majority of us felt we should go ahead and do it,” Porter said. “I strongly believe we did the right thing for the long-term benefit of the county.”