Buncombe County employees now have clearer guidelines for working with family members and flagging work-related concerns. Members of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved the changes to the county’s personnel ordinance at their Oct. 3 meeting.
Though no member of the Commission or county staff explicitly linked the new policy to the ongoing federal investigation of former County Manager Wanda Greene, the new rules appear to address issues many have speculated may have motivated the investigation.
Lisa Eby, the county’s human resources director, noted that personnel ordinance changes were two of new County Manager Mandy Stone’s top priorities to “make sure it is up-to-date.” Stone took over for Greene on July 1, and Xpress broke the story that Greene was under federal investigation on Aug. 16 and confirmed it later that week.
Eby said the review focused on transparency, accountability and equity. “[The personnel ordinance] is there so you have a fair and consistent practice that is out there in public that everybody can see. It’s amended only as needed. It’s meant to be a fairly static document that stays stable so essentially employees know rules of engagement in the workplace,” she said.
In short, the amendments adjust rules regarding family members supervising each other, establish a third-party hotline for employee and public complaints, create anti-retaliation rules, end the early retirement program and limit bonuses to $1,000 per year.
Eby says the changes cleaned up language regarding immediate family members in the workplace. “We want to make sure there is no conflict of interest between supervisors and employees, no supervision of relatives, and also limit indirect supervision of relatives,” she said.
Language in the county’s personnel ordinance will now read:
No county employee shall serve in a position that results in one 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.
Previous language stated: “No two members of an immediate family shall be employed within the same department.”
Stone has one relative working for the county as the director of permits and inspections.
Greene had hired a number of relatives, including her son, who resigned the day the FBI investigation was confirmed. He also just received a $1,706 raise from Wanda Greene, an issue Xpress explored in the article “Raising questions: Past pay increases present puzzles,” which you can read here. She currently has two relatives still working for the county.
“We want to make sure employees feel they can speak up. There will be an employee protection hotline, answered by independent third party available to all employees or the public to register a complaint anonymously,” said Eby, who noted those issues will be passed along to the county’s internal auditor. The employee protection, or whistleblower, hotline can be reached at 866-908-7236.
County staff also added language to the personnel ordinance assuring employees that lodging a complaint will not result in retaliation:
Buncombe County is committed to ensuring that every employee is treated fairly who lodges a concern, and the County will handle all concerns swiftly and confidentially to the extent possible in light of the need to take appropriate corrective action. Lodging a concern will in no way be used against the employee or have an adverse impact on the individual’s employment status. However, filing groundless or malicious concerns is an abuse of this policy and will be treated as a violation.
Finally, the county is ending its early retirement program, which was seemingly a victim of its own success. The county saw 160 people use the initiative, which was originally aimed at bringing in new staff at lower salaries to create savings. Eby said it’s had unintended consequences, such as losing a high density of key staff in single departments. “It’s very hard to deal with that much subject matter expertise walking out the door,” she said.
County staff assured commissioners that current early retirement offers will be honored. The enrollment period will remain open until Dec. 1.
In all, commissioners praised the personnel ordinance changes.
“I want to thank all of you. This was a lot of work; it’s thorough on two things. On the transparency for the public and also protections it will give employees,” said Commissioner Ellen Frost.
“Being a new commissioner … I couldn’t believe what I was reading and how outdated it was. These changes will be fair to all our employees and everyone will be playing by the same rules,” said Commissioner Al Whitesides.
And Commissioner Robert Pressley urged members of the public to look into the ordinance overhaul, noting the changes “are all positive … this is going to be very good.”
Commissioners unanimously approved the changes. Earlier in the meeting, commissioners heard an update about the Buncombe County Family Justice Center’s work to curb domestic violence and approved more preschool classroom space. You can read that recap here. And you can watch the entire meeting here.
Commissioners are back in action Tuesday, Oct. 10, for a work session. No official action is slated for that meeting.