Another cost of the pay scandal: $61,000 in legal fees

pseligson@newsobserver.comJuly 11, 2014 

The Town of Smithfield has so far spent $61,000 battling lawsuits stemming from its pay-raise scandal.

Councilman Emery Ashley, who is providing monthly updates on fallout from the scandal, revealed the legal-fee number at the council’s meeting earlier this month.

After the pay scandal broke in 2011, the Town Council fired then-town manager Eric Williams, who has since sued the town, claiming wrongful dismissal. Williams is also suing former town clerk Debbie Godwin, blaming her for the pay scandal, which included unauthorized pay raises and abuses of town policies on vacation pay and hardship payments. Godwin, in turn, is suing the town to cover her legal fees.

Ashley said he’s unhappy that the years-old scandal continues to prove costly to Smithfield. “We’ve got to plow through it to get it behind us, and it’s time to plow through it,” he said.

Williams’ complaint against Smithfield could go to trial in October.

Ashley said someone involved in the case secretly recorded conservations related to the scandal. The council recently received copies of those recordings, and Ashley said he would soon release transcripts.

Holiday pay

In June, employees in the public works department asked the Town Council for a change: They wanted to be paid time-and-a-half when working on holidays.

This month, the council unanimously agreed and made two changes to its pay policy.

First, an hourly employee called in to work on a holiday will now make time-and-a-half. Before, town policy mandated comp time instead of extra pay.

Also, hourly employees will now make time-and-a-half when they have to work more than 40 hours a week. Again, town policy had mandated comp time.

Employees had said it was unfair to lose time with their families on holidays or evenings without extra compensation. Town Manager Paul Sabiston agreed, and the council unanimously approved the policy changes, which will cost about $7,700 extra a year.

Solar farm

The Town Council approved a proposed solar farm that it rejected last month.

Sunlight Partners out of Greensboro will build the farm. Ashley Spain owns the property, which is near Yelverton Grove Road and Ray Drive.

Last month, Sunlight Partners sought special-use permits for two solar farms. After a two-hour hearing led by the company’s lawyer, the council rejected both, mostly on the grounds that the solar farms could lower property values.

Sunlight Partners reapplied, and this time, Spain, who will lease the land to Sunlight Partners, talked to the council. He owns most of the surrounding land and had notarized letters from neighbors who said they were fine with the project.

“I look at it as my income, my retirement income,” Spain said.

Traditional farms rarely make money, he said, and the solar farm would allow his son to keep the land and not sell it off.

The solar panels will also be about 1,000 feet from the road.

The council unanimously approved the solar farm. Ashley, the lone councilman to support the two requests last month, said he would like to see the other solar farm project come back before the the council.

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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