As of June 9, 2015, Stacey Woody was making over $50,000 annually in her role as public relations coordinator for Buncombe County. The very next day, she was making nearly $16,000 less per year, her responsibilities slashed to those of a library associate.
Buncombe County personnel records officially attribute this change to a reduction in force, the “elimination of the employee’s position due to reorganization” according to the county’s personnel ordinance. But federal prosecutors suggest a different motive: retaliation by former County Manager Wanda Greene after Woody questioned a $125,000 invoice for county sponsorship of the Tryon International Equestrian Center.
According to the July 16 indictment of former Commissioner Ellen Frost, who allegedly conspired with Greene to illegally direct over $575,000 in taxpayer money to equestrian activities, Woody “became concerned that such a large sum of county money was being paid to an out-of-county business, so she asked Greene if this was correct.” Woody raised the question on June 8, 2015; her reduction in force was effective just two days afterward on June 10.
In contrast with this rapid turnaround, the county personnel ordinance says that employees subject to a reduction in force should be given at least two weeks’ notice. The ordinance also says that reductions in force should be initiated by the relevant department head and the county human resources director — unless the county manager makes an exception. That power remains in the hands of current County Manager Avril Pinder, meaning that employees can still face reassignment or other unilateral staffing decisions by Buncombe’s top administrator.
County spokesperson Kassi Day declined to confirm whether Woody had in fact been given two weeks’ notice of the reduction in force, did not provide any documentation of the move and would not say whether Woody had appealed her transfer. “We simply are not at liberty to discuss your follow-up questions,” Day replied in response to multiple Xpress records requests. She also said that Woody did not wish to comment on the matter.
At the time of the move, Woody’s direct supervisor was former County Clerk Kathy Hughes, and the human resources director was Rob Thornberry. Hughes retired in July 2018, while Thornberry left the county in November 2015. Hughes did not respond to a request for comment, while Xpress was unable to find current contact information for Thornberry.
A personal matter?
Another section of the Buncombe personnel ordinance indicates that Greene may have been permitted to transfer Woody without consulting anyone else at the county. “Rather than just the involved departments, the county manager, who has the final authority to determine the employee(s) to be separated because of reduction in force, may consider the entire county workforce subject to his or her authority or control when making his or her decision,” the ordinance reads.
Xpress first asked for confirmation that Greene could have independently conducted reductions in force on Aug. 6. County staff did not provide an answer until Aug. 23, when Day acknowledged the possibility. “To the extent you are asking about county policy in general, Article VIII Section 5.A.6 of the Buncombe County Personnel Ordinance is applied on a case-by-case basis,” she said.
That ordinance still stands, and it gives significantly more power to Pinder than the equivalent city of Asheville policy gives to City Manager Debra Campbell. The city requires that its manager consult with both the human resources director and relevant department directors before authorizing a reduction in force, then submit a report to City Council about the action. Buncombe does not require the Board of Commissioners to be notified.
Pinder said that she does not anticipate revisiting Buncombe’s personnel policy in the immediate future. She added that the county is instead focusing on developing a strategic plan, for which the commissioners have identified “respect,” “honesty/integrity” and “embracing a culture of collaboration” as the most critical values.
That plan, Pinder said, “will define commissioner-identified priorities, guide county operations, and drive future policy and budget decisions. It is my hope that the end result will be an ambitious plan that meets the dynamic needs of our community and that all employees can see themselves in.”
Woody was transferred back to the County Clerk’s office in August 2017, over a month after Greene left the county, and currently works as a deputy clerk, earning an annual wage of more than $55,000. Beyond that move, Pinder did not mention any plans to compensate Woody for the earning potential she lost as a result of Greene’s actions.
“My goal is to move forward in a positive way, acknowledging the past but opening a new chapter in which employees feel empowered to speak up,” Pinder explained. “I do not have plans to revisit personnel decisions that may have been made in the past.”
Pinder added that she has held 27 meetings with staff members as part of a broad listening initiative since taking the manager role in March, speaking with roughly half of all county employees. At those meetings, she reminded employees of Buncombe’s existing whistleblower resources, such as the county’s no-retaliation policy — adopted in October 2017, after Greene’s departure — third-party reporting hotline and internal auditor.
“At the department meetings, I reassured employees that I am here to listen to their concerns and to encourage individuals to speak up if they see anything that doesn’t feel right,” Pinder said.
With additional reporting by Virginia Daffron.