County chairman needs to take responsibility for decision

Published 7:43 pm Friday, May 18, 2012

The level of distrust and cynicism by the general public toward government at all levels is at an all-time high. While I truly believe that most office holders try act with our best interests in mind, other office holders, along with entire government entities, rightfully earn the skepticism of their actions.

In my view, the Decatur County Commission is an example of a government entity that has rightfully earned the distrust of citizens of this county.

For more than a year, this has been a dysfunctional group, with numerous personal vendettas and agendas, that has not accomplished much.

In late February, the board forced the resignation of Tom Patton as county administrator for mismanagement of a serious spill at the county’s wastewater treatment plant. The night of Feb. 28, an agreement was reached that Patton would resign and would receive compensation for accrued sick leave, accrued personal time, and actual days worked. The total of those three items came to $29,408.

On the morning of Feb. 29, as Patton’s severance payment was being readied, a mistake in the calculation of the actual days worked was discovered. Patton was only due compensation for 16 hours of time worked, rather than the 48 hours calculated the night before. The total of the three items agreed to — accrued sick time, accrued vacation time, and actual hours worked — should have been $27,808.

Keep in mind, the agreement was made for Patton to receive the sum of those three items, not a random number of $29,408.

The payroll clerk that discovered the mistake made her direct supervisor aware. The supervisor then moved up the chain of command, until the mistake finally ended up in the lap of Commission Chairman Dr. Charles Stafford.

During a meeting this week, attended by Stafford, interim county administrator Gary Breedlove, The Post-Searchlight managing editor Justin Schuver, and me, Stafford repeatedly indicated that he was not aware of the mistake until after the electronic funds transfer was complete.

I don’t believe that to be the case.

I believe Stafford made the decision to let the payment to Patton go, even though he knew the calculations were incorrect. In fact, I believe he went as far to instruct the employees to not discuss the calculation error.

And I am not the only person with that opinion. Two county employees and county attorney Brown Moseley have all issued written statements or documents stating that Stafford was fully aware of the miscalculation and did nothing to stop the payment from transacting.

During the meeting, Stafford indicated that he, in fact, wasn’t completely sure that a mistake was made and did not have complete confidence that Patton was over-paid by $1,600. But during the last commission meeting on May 8, when this error was discussed by the entire board, never once did Stafford express his uncertainty over whether a mistake was actually made. It seemed to me that all were in agreement that a mistake had been made.

During that same meeting, on May 8, Stafford indicated that he had contacted Patton to ask that he return the overpayment and that Patton declined.

Why would Stafford ask Patton to return the $1,600 to the county treasury if he was unsure that it was owed? There are serious doubts that the conversation ever took place and the request was ever made.

Again, during the regular commission meeting on May 8, a motion was made by Commissioner Butch Mosely that the $1,600 overpayment be equally reimbursed to the county by Stafford, finance director Carl Rowland, and human resources director Marjorie Mayfield.

While I personally believe that the particular motion made by Mosely was inappropriate, Stafford should have stepped up to the plate and accepted responsibility for a decision that he made to let the payment proceed, despite the mistake.

He hung two employees out to dry financially and professionally. As a manager of people, I personally find that offensive and unacceptable.

Commissioner Earl Perry then offered to pay the money back, then commissioner Russell Smith offered to pay the money back, then commissioner Frank Loeffler offered to pay the money back … Stafford remained quiet, never taking responsibility for his decision.

Under the tense circumstances surrounding Patton’s resignation, Stafford’s decision to let the incorrect payment go could certainly be understandable. Not taking responsibility for the decision, not being totally forthright with fellow commissioners, and letting county workers take the blame is certainly not understandable. Not understandable and intolerable.

Stafford made the call. He needs to own it, and take responsibility for it.

Jeff Findley is the publisher of The Post-Searchlight. You can email him at jeff.findley@thepostsearchlight.com.