CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Differing versions emerged Thursday about last week’s closed two-hour meeting when Mecklenburg commissioners told County Manager Harry Jones he wasn’t getting a pay raise.
Jones, county manager for 12 years, had requested a 4.5 percent raise, boosting his base salary to $257,215, telling commissioners he ranked his past year’s job performance “as one of my most successful.”
Among the “major accomplishments” he included: leading the county’s split with Carolinas HealthCare System, finding a way to pay for fire protection in unincorporated areas and beginning construction of the Romare Bearden Park in uptown’s Third Ward.
But after a year when the county came under public criticism for its much-maligned 2011 revaluation and problems with its social services agency, commissioners didn’t agree with Jones’ self evaluation.
Thursday there was disagreement over how Jones reacted to the news. Jones did not respond to a request for comment.
Commissioner Bill James, a Republican, said Jones was clearly upset to the point of becoming belligerent toward some commissioners – including him.
He agreed with an account of the meeting in an Observer editorial. In that account, sources described Jones as hostile and aggressive to the point of upbraiding his bosses.
“He was berating the board and said a zero increase is unacceptable,” James told the Observer Thursday. “He essentially said, ‘You should be man enough to go ahead and fire me.’
“If someone asked me, ‘Was he belligerent and aggressive toward me?’ I would have to answer ‘Yes.’ Other commissioners might not feel the same way.”
Commissioner Karen Bentley, a Republican, declined to discuss details of the meeting but said her view of the meeting was accurately portrayed in the Observer editorial’s account.
Some commissioners didn’t see it like James and Bentley.
County board Chair Harold Cogdell, an independent who will officially leave the board Monday, said he never saw Jones get belligerent or angry, and said he never berated the board.
“If that had occurred I would have asked Mr. Jones on the spot for his resignation and strongly encouraged the board to accept it,” Cogdell said.
Jones, he said, was more disappointed than angry and “passionate about understanding why we came to the conclusion … regarding no pay raise. But at no time did I take or perceive Mr. Jones’ inquiries to the commissioners to be aggressive – or insubordinate.”
Likewise, board Vice Chair Jim Pendergraph, a Republican, said he doesn’t remember Jones even raising his voice.
“It was obvious that he was not happy with our decision and that’s his right. He expressed strong disappointment,” said Pendergraph, who is also leaving the board Monday. “Had I been him, I would have expressed disappointment, too.
“But to say he was belligerent or berating is way overstated.”
As Mecklenburg’s sheriff for many years, Pendergraph said he’s seen aggressive behavior “up close and personal. As far as Harry getting aggressive with us, no, that did not happen. If he had, I wouldn’t have tolerated it.”
Commissioner Dumont Clarke, a Democrat, said he didn’t think Jones berated the board. “I think what he was doing was giving an honest reaction to what the board did,” Clarke said. “And frankly, I would expect nothing less from him.”
Performance ‘not exemplary’
Some board members like Cogdell and Clarke thought Jones should have been given a 1.5 percent raise, instead of no raise at all.
The county bases pay raises for all employees under three classifications: Work that is “exemplary,” “successful” or work that “needs improvement.” A 4.5 percent raise, which Jones requested, would have put him in the “exemplary” range. A 1.5 percent raise would have been at the lower end of the “successful” rating.
Jones reminded commissioners that he’d taken a $20,000 cut in compensation in 2010 and that it’s taken three years to restore his total compensation to the 2009 level.
Most commissioners agreed Jones had some success, particularly in severing ties with Carolinas HealthCare Systems to stop paying the system to help care for psychiatric and low-income patients.
“It was clear that a unanimous board was of the opinion that his performance was not exemplary,” Cogdell said. “But just as much as you have to hold people accountable for shortcomings, you have to acknowledge the successes.”
After learning he wasn’t getting a raise, Jones asked the board “does this mean that you no longer see me as a value to this organization,” Cogdell said. “I have no recollection of any of the board members saying that he has no value.”
Clarke, chairman of the board’s compensation committee, said Jones had some “extraordinary achievements” the past year. In addition to split with CHS that may save taxpayers $20 million, the county adopted new tax districts to pay for fire service in unincorporated areas.
With the DSS issue, Clarke said Jones’ only fault was not terminating former head Mary Wilson sooner.
Clarke said denying Jones a pay raise was an unfair look at his year. “I think the way you evaluate someone is you do a balanced assessment,” Clarke said. “You don’t put the negative things on the scale and then go home. I think what you do is look at overall performance.”
The closed session came at the end of a long meeting on Nov. 20 that dealt primarily with the controversial and sometimes emotional revaluation issue. It went until after midnight.
Cogdell and James said the board probably should have taken up Jones’ evaluation at another time.
“It was late – it ran from 10 to midnight – and my experience has been that that’s not the best time for having serious discussions,” James said. “When you have an emotionally charged discussion at midnight, things get said that probably shouldn’t have been said.”
Cogdell said Jones was earnest in wanting to know where he needed to improve. The board, he said, felt Jones needs to be more responsive to concerns from residents and be more hands-on in his oversight.
“I do believe (it) … was a humbling experience for Mr. Jones,” Cogdell said. “I think he will learn and be a better county manager for it.”