Swain County responds to election director lawsuit

Swain County Board of Elections Chairman John Herrin speaks to commissioners about unpaid retirement benefits for Elections Director Joan Weeks. SMN photo Swain County Board of Elections Chairman John Herrin speaks to commissioners about unpaid retirement benefits for Elections Director Joan Weeks. SMN photo

Swain County Election Director Joan Weeks finally got a response from the county regarding a lawsuit she filed against the board of commissioners — but it was not the response she was hoping for. 

Weeks, who has served as election director in Swain since 1983, filed a complaint against the county last October in an attempt to recoup unpaid salary and retirement benefits she claims are owed to her. She finally received the response from the commissioners’ lawyer Sean F. Perrin out of Charlotte. 

As to Weeks’ breach of contract claim against the commissioners, Perrin responded to all 20 points with “Defendants lack sufficient knowledge or information to form a belief as to the allegations of the Paragraph.”

The second claim, seeking money damages for Weeks and her assistant director Judy Allman, was also answered with the same “lack of sufficient knowledge” defense. 

The battle to get the county to hand over back pay and retirement benefits has been going on for many years. Weeks claims she should have been accumulating retirement benefits from the time she was hired in 1983. However, the county has claimed Weeks wasn’t eligible for those benefits until 1992 when the position became full-time with the county. 

According to her complaint, Weeks said the Swain County Board of Elections and the Swain County Board of Commissioners, as a condition of her employment in 1983, promised her the same benefits as any other county employee, including membership in the North Carolina Local Government Employees’ Retirement System.

In 2009, Weeks said then-chairman of the Swain County Board of Elections Russell Childress informed her that commissioners Steve Moon, Genevieve Lindsey, David Monteith, and Robert White held a meeting and agreed the county would fund her retirement for the years 1983-1992 — but it never happened. 

“On numerous occasions after being orally promised that her retirement for the years 1983-1992 would be funded by Swain County, the Plaintiff, Joan Carol Weeks, spoke to one or more members of the Swain County Board of Commissioners and they indicated to her that the Board was still ‘looking into’ funding her retirement,” the complaint stated.   

Finally in 2015, the commissioners notified Weeks that the county would not be paying her retirement for those years. Weeks and current Board of Elections Chairman John Herrin have pleaded the case in front of the commissioners many times since 2015 with little to no response from the board members. 

Herrin tried to explain to commissioners that the county election director position falls under the State Board of Elections, which doesn’t distinguish between a part time and full time director and that benefits should have started immediately. Despite the efforts to explain the matter fully to commissioners, the board hasn’t budged on its decision. 

The complaint also stated that Swain County Manager Kevin King informed Weeks that if she did not like the decision, “she could just sue them, they (the Swain County Board of Commissioners) have insurance.”

Weeks sent a form to the North Carolina Retirement System to get an estimated cost of her retirement claim. As of 2013, the estimated claim was $76,497 for 7.5 years of service. According to her lawsuit, Weeks is seeking $81,725 in retirement benefits back pay from 1983-1992. 

The local board of elections has also made multiple requests in its annual budgets for pay raises for Weeks and Allman to put them in line with similar counties in the state, but the county has denied any increase above the basic cost-of-living adjustments. 

As a direct and proximate result of the county’s failure to approve salary increases for the years 2015, 2016 and 2017, Weeks is seeking $21,894. Allman is seeking $11,682 from the county for not approving pay increases for her position during the same years. 

While Weeks hoped to get the issue worked out without having to go to court, she said going to trial would be the next move to let a jury decide. 

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