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Wanda Greene fiasco: just how did it happen?
Tuesday, 02 January 2018 12:03
By JOHN NORTH
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Three Buncombe County officials  provided a history and update — and fielded questions — on problems in the county government that came to light following the retirement of long-time County Manager Wanda Greene during a Dec. 1 breakfast meeting of the Council of Independent Business Owners.

The address, titled “A Report on the State of Buncombe County – personnel issues –bonuses – compensation issues – investigations – etc.,” drew about 55 CIBO members and others to the early-morning meeting at UNC Asheville’s Sherrill Center.

Giving the presentation were two county commissioners — Ellen Frost, a Democratc; and Mike Fryar, a Republican — and Lisa Eby, Buncombe’s human resources director.

Frost began by noting, “The question that everybody has is… How did all of this happen?

“I look around and see Mike Fryar and other people who had long relationships with our county manager.”

As for the problems with Greene, Frost said, “It was trust. it was complicitness.”

Frost noted that when Greene was questioned by various commissioners over the years, “we all received a resounding’no,’” discouraging further questioning.

 

“The county manager divided us by political parties,” she added, noting that she has since built a good relationship with Fryar, who “was the first one to ask about money. He was made into an outcast” by Greene.

Regarding Fryar, Frost said, “Employees were told (by Greene) if they cooperated with him, they’d be fired... Fired!

“When he (Fryar) got re-elected…. he asked about millions of dollars missing” from the county coffers. Eventually, despite their conflicting party affliations, Frost said, she and Fryar “became friends” as they joined forces to find out what was happening with county funds.

“There are millions of things he (Fryar) and I don’t agree on,” Frost said of Fryar with a smile. “But one thing we do agree on is truth.

“We would send emails. The emails would go missing.” Soon, Frost said, she also was put on Greene’s enemies list. 

Frost said county employees were warned by Greene that, “if you talk to Fryar or me (Frost), you’ll be fired.”

Regarding the fallout as revelations of hundreds of thousands of dollars in missing or misalocated funds have occurred, Frost said, “I’m humbly sorry for what has happened.

“What was allowed to happen through the ordinance can never happen again. So that’s my part of it and I’ll let commissioner Fryar take over.”

Fryar began his address by noting that “Commissioner Frost was right — it was a little tough. I was like one person in a barrel. We lost our offices... We got our offices back. They’re not going to keep us apart.”

He added, “She (Frost) did come on board. It took awhile. All of the commissioners got together, including Mr. (Joe) Belcher....

“The way I saw it — she (Greene) took one credit card to pay off other credit cards. There’s a lot of stuff we didn’t know. One thing I did know” is that “after the budget ordinance came up ... I heard from (Asheville Citizen-Times reporter) Joel Burgess, who (called Fryar and) said the (county spending) ordinance went down,” meaning was approved, to his shock. 

“I got a hard copy — finally — and looked at it and said, ‘Boy, we’re in trouble,’ Things got changed (by Greene) since the commissioners had specified how they wanted it, Fryar said.

At that point, Fryar paused and noted, “There are very good people working in this county.”

Yet, during Greene’s administration, “I heard (county employees say) that ‘if you talk to Mike Fryar, you’re fired.’”

 During a question-and-answer period that followed Frost’s and Fryar’s presentations, CIBO member Mac Swicegood said to Eby , “Of anybody up there, you read a spreadsheet better than anybody we’ve had.

“As a result of that, there are other people who are accountable. If you go over the fiduciary responsibility — one person doesn’t just create a fiasco like this. I appreciate your explanation. That doesn’t cover up 25 years.”

Swicegood then asked, “How do we go forward? Also, how do we give Wanda a day where she gives her side?”

Eby replied “You’re right. There’s needs to be accountability distributed throughout the organization. And you can’t go forward without doing that.

“Many things happened. Part of it was isolation, where people weren’t talking to each other.

“Unfortunately, the board of commissioners did confer on Wanda a tremendous amount of power. 

“I want to be clear I came into this position as HR director when Mandy Stone was named county manager.

“So what we’ve done is we’ve limited the powers of the county manager. … A lot of what happened… it was sleight of hand. Something would be posted… and then minutes later it would be gone,” Eby said.

Since the problems have been unveiled, the commissioners have limited the county manager’s ability to award bonuses exceeding $1,000 and ended the early retirement incentive program, which, Eby said, “are meant to be very short-term programs... The intent is not to put something in for perpetuity.”

Eby added that Greene, while in office, “continued to change that (early-retirement) ordinance. We ended up having 170 employees leave... So that program has ceased. I don’t foresee us offering any early retirement programs in the foreseeable future.”

Further, Eby said, Greene served in a “dual role, as we didn’t have an assistant county manager.”

She also said jobs, such as information technology manager, which was held by her son and paid a six-figure salary; and other county posts that have been deemed unneeded have been eliminated.

“The short answer is the loopholes have been closed and we have the right responsibility right now,” Eby told Swicegood.

A man asked, “Were there annual performance evaluations of the county manager?”

“No job descriptions or performance evaluations” of the county manager were conducted, Frost replied.

Another man asked, “Have you done anything to get our money back?”

“We are doing everything we possibly can,” Frost answered.

Eby added, “One thing is ... if you’re convicted of a felony, you’re no longer eligible for retirement benefits.”

A man queried, “What prompted the federal investigation?”

“The internal audior who started working in March caught a few things,” Frost replied. “She went to her higher-ups and the district attorney” was notified.

Mike Plemmons questioned the reasoning for the retention incentive that Greene also offered county employees.

Eby replied that, indeed, “It was a retention incentive. And the employees who received the retention incentive — they will receive a year’s salary over three years. They will get the same amount as those taking early retirement.”

A man asked, “In the structure of the county, who is responsible for oversight of the county manager?”

Eby replied, “The commission as a whole” is responsible for oversight of the county manager. “But the chairman was conferred quite a bit of discretion, which he exercised. That was changed as of July 1,” giving the chairman less power in that regard and spreading it to all of the commissioners.

To add further clarification, Fryar noted, “The previous chairman (David Gantt), under this 45-document bill, could do this and do that. We don’t have that any more. He was given way too much power and that power has been stopped. Mr. (Brownie) Newman (the current chairman) hasn’t been given the power that the previous chairman (Gantt) had.”

What’s more, Frost said, “What’s been so frustrating for Mike and I is ... when Mike and I raised questions, we were told, ‘You’re crazy!’ and ‘She’s the best county manager ever!’ We worked through the local news media on information requests. 

“What Wanda would do, if something was good for her, she would throw it onto other people — and take advantage of it, too. Again, the triangulation was confounding and frustrating.”

A man asked if it was true that “the county attorney said you can’t talk to anybody.”

“We did go to the county attorney (Bob Deutsch, at the time), but he said we couldn’t do anything,” Frost replied.

“You should have fired him,” the man said.

“We finally did!” Fryar answered.

(However, Deutsch, at least officially, resigned from his post as attorney for the county commissioners, effective Oct. 31. When his resignation was announced in early October, Newman, on behalf of the commissioners, said, “We’re very appreciative of his service to the county.)

Fryar then added, “I was surprised to read in the newspaper (the Asheville Citizen-Times) that Miss Greene tried to ‘take me out.’”

When nobody responded to Fryar’s comment, Asheville conservative activist Shelia Surratt said, “All county employees have to be treated equally.” She then asked about electing the county manager and having someone other than the county manager handle internal complaints.

In response, Frost said, “So the legislature would determine whether the county manager would be elected. As far as treating all employee equally, our current manager and her department was ostracized. So we’re very aware of what’s happened in the past. …. In the past, Wanda was the one who received whisteblower complaints,” but the system has been changed now.

Eby added, “As far as treating people the same… the unlimited ability of giving employees bonuses (held by Greene) is gone…. We also have gone out on a salary study. It hasn’t been reviewed in a very long time. We will complete that in January. We are filling jobs with salaries that are in mid-range, with comparable urban counties.”

Further, she said, “Complaints now are going to an internal auditor… What we don’t want to have is an atmosphere where employees are afraid to speak up.”

A man asked, “Are you taking any measures to identify and secure the assets that have been misappropriated?”

“The bonuses are there — they’re already gone,” Fryar replied. “Everything else you’ve read in the paper ... there’s nothing new about that … about the gift cards and stuff like that... When Miss Greene left, she left with a lot of money….”

Frost added, “Buncombe County is in great shape, financially. One of the things Mandy Stone was able to do was to lower salaries enough that we could give the lowest-paid people that 1-1/2 percent raise.

“We’re going to do everything we can to get our assets back. Our house got robbed.”

To that end, Fryar asserted, “They’ve already generated about $900,000 into our budget.”

Frost then said, “I can understand the fear that employees felt. But the strength and bravery that Mandy Stone and Lisa Eby (in the aftermath) exhibited was amazing. Because ... if they (ever) got caught talking to us, they would have been fired.

“It’s easy to say ... ‘Clean house and get rid of them.’ Mandy inherited a horrible mess.”

A man asked about Greene, “Are you taking any measures (to get money back from Greene)… She has a rather large reitrement, doesn’t she?”

“We have to wait for the investigation to play out,” Eby replied. “The internal audit committee we have right now is truly independent.”

Larry Harris, who is on the audit committee and was in attendance at the CIBO meeting, then was called on to give a quick update on its status.

The panel has been “in place for eight or 10 years… But, unfortunately, the internal auditor reported to Wanda or someone underneath her, which sort of leveraged what someone could do.

“We’ve changed the structure in which the commission operates.

“We now have two commissioners (Fryar and Al Whitesides) on the audit committee, which is responsible for the oversight of the internal auditor and we took the staff off. That’s completely outside of management (now). We think that’s a solution. If the internal audit function had been operating properly, it’s likely that some of the issues” that occurred would have been spotted earlier.

Swicegood then asked,  “How far back are you going to balance the checkbook?”

“I can’t answer that question,” Harris replied “The real issues had to do with the chairman of the commissioners had so much power — and he could tell the other commissioners, ‘You can’t ask questions any more.’”

 



 


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