Asheville – It was presented as a routine update, and yet it wasn’t. Given that Buncombe County has an office of Communications and Public Engagement, and that governments in general hire experts in framing and spinning, the optics appeared contrived to raise suspicions.
It started as an update on the county’s Audit Committee. The presenter, the committee’s Chair Kendra Ferguson, spoke haltingly. At first, the committee sounded self-serving; its accomplishments included coming up with its business plan, scheduling meeting dates, and seating members.
Things got more interesting when Ferguson said the Internal Audit Department had been functioning without a director since July. In the absence of a director, it had been unable to approve a risk assessment and audit plan last fiscal year. In fact, Ferguson said the department had not completed an internal audit, “since Sheriff [Van] Duncan.” Duncan retired in 2018.
In later discussions, it was established that the county could probably do well with three to five persons in the department, but for the last two years, it had been working with only one or two. It currently had a single staff person, who was unable to complete audits, and lacking the “expertise to assess risk and audit information technology functions.” The staffer was poised to take a job elsewhere with the county, and the county couldn’t advertise for her replacement until a director was in place.
The Audit Committee was formed in 2000, but it was dysfunctional, as it was pretty much controlled by and answerable to the first county manager to resign prior to sentencing on federal corruption charges. Reforms made around 2017 replaced the county staff appointee, which had been the manager, with a second commissioner and turned oversight over to the Audit Committee.
Ferguson reported the committee had performed 54 investigations in FY2021 and 15 so far in FY2022. She said that was a lot, but offered the high volume was indicative that staff now trusted the system. She added that 25 investigations last year and seven this year pertained to a single issue, but she did not say what that issue was.
Ferguson said it was important to hire a new director before the committee, “lost its independent association with investigations.” She recommended contracting with a search firm, as the qualified applicant would have external auditing and local government auditing experience. Asked by Commissioner Terri Wells what the hurdles to hiring were, Ferguson said pay was not a factor.
It may have been nothing, but Commissioner Al Whitesides, who serves on the committee, said the commissioners, “have got to move with lightning speed,” to find a director after, “what we’ve gone through this year.”
This was compounded when Commissioner Robert Pressley, the other member of the board who serves on the committee, remarked they had, “really been put under a lot of pressure here the last few months … with some internal things we had going on.” Later, he added, “We’ve all talked about jumping ship here.”
Addressing Whitesides and Pressley, Ferguson closed with, “We’ve really gotten to know each other well over the last few.”
Raising eyebrows a tad further, this discussion was followed by a public hearing on updates to the county’s personnel policies, with special emphasis on managing conflicts of interest, a subject about which Performance Management Director Rafael Baptista said, “I know there have been questions around.”
This also was a routine review of policies implemented in the wake of the sentencing of three former county managers, one commissioner, one county contractor, and the son of a county manager on multiple counts of fraud. Baptista explained the changes were mostly for clarification and transparency and to assist with managing conflicts of interest.
A need for clarification suggests the existence of a problem. It had been three years since nepotism had supposedly been rooted out, but Chair Brownie Newman’s requests for further strengthening the ordinance could have led a reasonable person to believe the current county manager had been trying to hire her entire family.
After all, on multiple occasions, Baptista spoke about procedures the county manager would have to follow, but he later clarified that the stipulations applied to anybody who works for or was appointed by the board of commissioners. The discussion on stipulations for approvals for hiring family members, in fact, pertained to limitations on the commissioners’ powers, the need for clarification of which raised more questions. Newman said he was referring only to past problems but hoped in the future the county would require members of staff to proactively notify the Internal Audit Committee if they were ever pressured by anybody in county government to enable nepotism.
The new policy states, in part, “No County employee shall serve in a position that results in a family member supervising the other or in one family member occupying a position that has influence over the other’s employment, promotion, salary administration or related management, or personnel considerations. In addition, if there is a situation that would result in the perception of or the possibility of a conflict of interest in carrying out the duties of a position, then satisfactory safeguards shall be enacted that remove the possibility of conflict and shall be approved by the County Manager.”
The policy clarifies restrictions on employees accepting gifts, working second jobs, becoming romantically involved, and engaging in insider trading. Employees will have to proactively disclose potential personal conflicts each year, and Human Resources personnel will have to “track” these.