County leaders are accusing one another of dishonesty and unethical conduct in the wake of the firing of Durham County Department of Social Services director Gerri Robinson.
Michael Page, chairman of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, accused Commissioner Ellen Reckhow in an email exchange of not being honest about information she had before a controversial vote on a recent DSS board appointment.
In interviews he also said he'd heard Commissioner Joe Bowser orchestrated Robinson's dismissal after she refused to hire his friend. Page would not name who told him that and said he could not prove it.
"But I have to go by that when people bring me information," he said.
Bowser shot back, calling Page a "liar."
"It takes an ignorant person to make comments that are not true," Bowser said.
Although he introduced a potential job candidate to Robinson, he said it was a "recommendation only."Board appointment
The rancor stems from a June 27 county commissioners meeting in which Bowser, Reckhow and Becky Heron voted to put Gail Perry, a former DSS employee with 37 years of experience in social services, on the DSS board.
Page and Commissioner Brenda Howerton voted for Gloria Green, whose first term on the board had just expired. Page had served on the board with Green, a former DSS employee, and said the county had no reason to end her tenure.
"They took her off because she always found herself in agreement with the DSS director and was against the will of some of the things they wanted to see happen," he said.
Heron and Reckhow said Bowser, the commissioners' liaison to the DSS board, contacted them before the vote, saying Robinson's leadership had been divisive and led to the loss of several longtime employees.
Reckhow said the board had received verbal and written feedback about the director. She said she consulted County Manager Mike Ruffin, who indicated a change needed to occur, "which carried a lot of weight with me," she said.
Ruffin declined to comment for this story.
A change had to be made on the DSS board because of Green and Carver-Tann's unwavering support for Robinson, whose management style was straining staff and jeopardizing important community partnerships, said Bowser and DSS board Chairman Stan Holt.Robinson ousted
At Perry's first DSS board meeting on July 27, she, Bowser and Holt, who had just been elected chairman, voted to fire Robinson.
Board member Carolyn Carver-Tann voted against the move, and the board's fifth seat was vacant.
Bowser and Holt then voted to appoint Perry as interim director. Page had received an anonymous letter that said Perry used DSS money to buy Chic-fil-A coupons for employees. She was ordered to pay back the money and retired shortly thereafter, the letter stated.
"That is not true," said former DSS director Dan Hudgins, who was Perry's boss at the time. The coupons were free, and Perry left in good standing, he said.
In a testy Aug. 16 email exchange, Page contends Reckhow lied when she said didn't know about the coupon allegation and said she shouldn't have supported Perry's board appointment.
Reckhow criticized Page for calling her in a rage after the vote.
"You were so angry that I felt that I was being abused over the phone," she wrote.Ethics questions
Since then, Page, along with Gladys Dunston, a Robinson supporter and chairwoman of the DSS board until her term expired in June, have come out in support of Robinson.
They said Robinson's performance evaluations were positive, and they have raised ethics questions about the political maneuvering that led to Perry's appointment. The concerns include Bowser's alleged retribution, as well as a conflict of interest they say Perry had in voting to fire Robinson, and then taking her place.
Perry's annual salary jumped from $66,192 as a social worker for Durham Public Schools, to $129,000. Perry couldn't be reached for comment.
Bowser said Perry didn't want the interim position, but agreed to take it after two others turned it down. Holt and Bowser said while Perry was known as a potential candidate for the interim director's position, the decision wasn't made until after they voted to fire Robinson.
Former and current board members have different descriptions of Robinson's performance.
Bowser said he received about 20 letters from employees indicating the morale had dropped to "rock bottom." In a May 13 letter to the DSS board members, former assistant director Sharon Hirsch noted the loss of eight key staffers - program managers, supervisors and assistant directors. The letter said Robinson humiliated employees and sent emails that were demeaning, insulting and abusive.
"A culture of fear has permeated the agency," she wrote.
Dunston said Robinson was doing a good job and wasn't given enough time to address concerns raised by the former employees.
"Why was the first solution that came up to dismiss her?" Dunston asked.
Robinson said she brought in experienced consultants and helped the agency save money, improve contract monitoring, and work toward implementing best practices and ultimately accreditation.
Some of the employees, she said, struggled to adjust to the changes, and some board members complicated the situation by meddling in employee issues.
But Bowser and Holt said they had concerns about the direction Robinson was taking the agency, especially the push for accreditation when the agency is seeing higher demand for services during the rocky economic climate.
"I'd love to see agency get accredited," Hirsch wrote in her letter. "But the pressure and speed with which she wants to get it done is unreasonable."
Holt and Bowser also criticized Robinson's focus on mandatory services, which jeopardized community programs and partnerships.
"What that means is that we are only going to provide the services we are required by law, regardless of what the community needs and what the community wants," Holt said.
At Perry's first meeting, she announced the restoration of some of those services. The accreditation process is on hold.
In an interview, Bowser said Dunston favored Robinson because they were friends and that Carver-Tann also stepped onto the board to support her friend. The county appoints two of the board's five members; the state appoints two members; and the four board members appoint the fifth. Carver-Tann is a state appointee.