Manager’s extension, severance package a point of contention
by Saja Hindi
The Stallings Town Council voted in favor of a five year extension of the Town Manager’s contract at the meeting Monday night, after both a closed session and public discussion of the issue.
The manager’s contract, which the council amended four times in previous years, was set to expire in June. Brian Matthews was hired in 2001. The first amendment in May 2002 changed the position from Town Administrator to Town Manager and allowed the manager to appoint, suspend and remove employees that the council did not appoint. The second amendment in August 2003 renewed the contract for a three year term. The third amendment in April 2005 extended the contract to 2011 and increased the three month severance package in case of involuntary termination to six months. And the fourth amendment in November 2005 extended the term to 2012 and the severance package increased to two years’ salary.
Of the six residents who spoke during the opening public comments portion of the meeting, five spoke about the manager’s contract extension, all speaking favorably.
Former Council member Mark Franza was among the supporters of the extension. Franza said he’s worked with Matthews for about seven years, adding that Matthews is well respected by local officials in other towns, the Stallings Town staff members are all loyal to him and he has been fiscally conservative in the town and its citizens’ interests.
“Under some challenging political climates under the town the past several years, he has largely continued to try to move the town in a positive direction and keep the town officials focused on the needs of the residents,” Franza said. “In my opinion, Brian’s professionalism all these years in the performance of his duties has only been surpassed by his love of the town.”
According to Franza, the town can’t put a performance rating or price on the quality of the work Matthews has done for the town, including what he referred to as the two largest projects the town has undertaken: the Town Hall building and the first phase of the park project.
Another former council member Thelma Privette seconded his remarks. She said she has worked with Brian since 2003.
“While in office, I have observed his integrity and fairness in working with the council committees, Town staff and the public. He’s also had a good relationship with other managers and government officials,” Privette said.
Privette agreed that Matthews tried to save the town as much money as possible.
“Brian’s always been a great manager of the town’s finances and tries to find ways to cut costs and apply for grants when possible,” she said.
But it wasn’t just formal council members that spoke in his favor.
Erik Blowers, owner of God Bless the USA – the trash service provider for the town, shared those sentiments.
“I don’t have a dog in the fight – I’m here from an outside perspective talking about Mr. Matthews,” Blowers said. “The one word that sticks out in my mind with him is equitable.”
He said most of the issues Blowers works with Matthews on involve the residents and Matthews was always looking out for the town’s interests.
“He’s a real asset,” he said. “I think y’all have a real gem.”
After a closed session to discuss this issue and another, Councilman Fred Weber made a motion to extend the manager’s contract for five years, change the severance package from two years to one year and to increase the money allocated to travel for the manager’s immediate family from $500 to $1,000. This motion initially failed at the suggestion of the town’s attorney to include more specifics to include that Matthews will not pursue any lawsuits against the town as well as to include honoring any 45-day resignation notice, with pay. Mayor Pro Tem Reed Esarove then made that motion.
However, the mayor and some council members still had reservations about the extension.
Council member Paul Frost said he conducted his own research and spoke with different town managers to come to his conclusions.
“In my opinion, and it’s based on professional opinions as stated in the mayor’s package… that a 5 five-year contract is not in the best interest of the city and tax payers,” Frost said.
According to Frost, from what he found, the norm for a manager’s contract is a two-year contract.
Frost refuted by pointing out the reasoning behind a longer contract.
“My desire to have a five-year contract has to do with the fact that I expect to be here for four years, and as I said in the past, I don’t want the town manager to be distracted, worried about his job — when the ax is going to fall,” he said.
Mayor Lynda Paxton was also opposed to the extension for similar reasons as Frost.
“I would like to make it known on the record that we communicated with Ellis Hankins who is the director of the North Carolina League of Municipalities. He strongly advised against a five-year contract,” Paxton said.
But the extension length was not the only point of contention.
Paxton and Frost both opposed the amount of the severance package.
“While I understand this is something that’s customary in this line of work… beyond six months is quite generous with our tax payers dollars,” he said.
Frost said that would amount to about $100,000, which he said was an unreasonable commitment.
“Each of the council members I heard made commitments to the public about being careful with tax payer dollars and [to] be fiscally conservative and this is not an example of being fiscally conservative,” he said.
But Paxton said that type of commitment is excessive.
“The state of North Carolina does have an At-Will Employment status, and there’s no way any council can contract out of that At-Will status. What councils do and what you’re seeing see this council do is tie the hand of future councils with a severance package that nobody is willing to pay back basically,” she warned.
Weber, on the other hand, felt a one-year severance package makes sense.
“Particularly in this line of work, to relocate and to look for another job is going to take at least that long if not longer,” he said.
Speaking with Union County Weekly after the meeting, Esarove said he thought Brian more than earned the vote of confidence, after what he had accomplished.
“I think the town’s lucky to have him,” Esarove said. “He’s helped guide the completion of the town hall, he selected our new police chief and he’s working on the first phase of the park extension. Brian’s a rare type of manager who knows the current status of every project at any time. Anyone can call him up and he knows what’s going on in a situation.”
The council put the motion to a vote, which carried 4-2.