Pay raises in Smithfield must run through council

dquizon@newsobserver.comJuly 9, 2013 

Mayor Daniel Evans, left, swears in new Smithfield police officer James Sittig. Going forward, new hires will have to have council approval.

DEREK QUIZON — dquizon@newsobserver.com

— Pay raises and new hires in town government will now have to run through council.

The council passed the mandate at its meeting last week. Councilman Perry Harris made the motion, citing the unauthorized pay raises two years ago that led to the firing of former town manager Eric Williams.

“The pay raises have been a problem in Smithfield,” Harris said. “I think it’s just a safeguard for the council at this moment to try and stay within our budget limitations.”

Under the rule adopted last week, the town manager will have to present to the council a monthly report on promotions, merit raises, pay raises and new hires.

Harris also made a successful motion to restrict the movement of money from one part of the budget to another. Any time the town manager wants to moves more than $1,000 from one budget item to another, town council will need to approve it.

Finally, Harris asked Town Manager Paul Sabiston to prepare a document comparing the town’s budget at the end of 2012-13 to the budget passed last June. It’s common for budgets to change slightly over the course of the year, and Harris said he wants to make sure the council is staying within the boundaries it set.

Keeping tabs

The first two measures – on pay raises and shifting money within the budget – are aimed at monitoring town staff, Harris said. “Given our history … I think this council ought to be aware of what’s going on,” he said.

Some council members were confused about what constituted a “new hire.” Harris said positions created and approved by the council in the recent budget do not have to come back to the council. But anything outside of that will need approval, he said.

If, for example, the police department loses three officers, the police chief must go before the council to ask if he can refill the three vacancies. The council might allow him to hire three new officers, might ask him to fill only one or two vacancies or might not allow him to proceed at all.

Sabiston called it “an odd practice,” but said he’d do anything the council asked him to do. Councilman Zach Crocker wondered if the practice would slow the hiring process, since the council meets just once a month.

“If we find a new finance director tomorrow, we wouldn’t be able to hire him until next month?” Crocker asked.

Harris said the measure was needed to keep the council aware of what the town was up to. He said that awareness could prevent another pay-raise scandal. “You’ve got to start somewhere,” he said.

Avoiding a repeat

The State Bureau of Investigation and the Johnston County district attorney’s office are investigating the series of unauthorized pay raises in 2011. The council had decided at the start of that budget year to freeze employee pay, but Williams, the former manager, approved raises for 31 employees anyway, according to town records.

Williams, former town clerk Debbie Godwin and former payroll manager Lynn Powell lost their jobs.

Harris and Councilman Emery Ashley say the scandal has hung over the council and town government for two years. Ashley said the whole mess could’ve been avoided with safeguards like the ones the council passed last Tuesday.

That makes the 30-day wait on new hires and pay raises worth the trouble, he said. “Had certain pay raises been brought to the council in 30 days, we could have resolved in one month what has been going on for several years,” Ashley said.

Quizon: 919-836-5768

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