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Wednesday, 08 December 2010 20:30

Westmoreland: Debnam said he wanted ‘change’

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To hear Kenneth Westmoreland tell it, the decision to leave his job as Jackson County manager wasn’t exactly “his decision” as portrayed after the fact by new commission Chairman Jack Debnam.

Did Debnam tell a lie, on this his first action as commissioner? Call it a contradiction, Westmoreland said, adding that he would have liked to continue as manager for a couple more years.

A phone message left for Debnam seeking clarification about his comments went unreturned before presstime Tuesday.

“He put it this way,” Westmoreland said of Debnam’s announcement last week that the manager would retire effective Jan 1. “He said, ‘the three of us have talked it over and we would like a change.’”

Westmoreland, who has been Jackson County manager for almost a decade, said Debnam also asked him to stay on a few months and help orient and guide an interim manager. Westmoreland said he understands that Chuck Wooten will fill the post. Wooten, a 30-year veteran of Western Carolina University, retires as vice chancellor for administration and finance on Jan. 1.

After checking on his retirement status, Westmoreland said he frankly saw no advantage to sticking around for a few more months and elected to head out the door. He plans to continue living in Jackson County.

“This is home,” Westmoreland said.

With accumulated leave, his last official day was Tuesday.

In addition to Debnam (replacing Democrat Brian McMahan), who is a registered independent, Republicans Charles Elder, (replacing Democrat William Shelton) and Doug Cody (replacing Democrat Tom Massie) join current commissioners Joe Cowan (a Democrat) and Mark Jones (a Democrat) on the commission board.

Debnam, though registered independent, received support during the election from the GOP.

Westmorland’s actions as county manager became a campaign issue during the election, particularly his role in implementing a new pay-scale system that was criticized as too generous to long-time employees like himself. The Democrat-controlled board approved the pay system.

His leadership during the relicensing battle with Duke Energy, which cost the county hundreds of thousands in legal fees, also had been criticized.

Debnam, asked pointblank just after the Nov. 2 election whether Westmoreland’s job was in jeopardy, deferred at that time to his fellow commissioners.

“It’s not going to be up to me,” he said “There are five commissioners … we are going to scrutinize several positions.”

The new commissioners also are promising to revisit Jackson County’s land-use regulations, which some blame for curtailing building activity.

Westmoreland said commissioners “have every right, prerogative and the authority to put in their own management team … with that authority, I don’t understand why he felt the need to deny it, but it just didn’t come out that way, I guess.”

The long-time manager said he feels the incoming board is being left in “good shape, with $23 million in undesignated fund balance.” Westmoreland said commissioners are facing steep challenges, primarily dealing with whatever comes down from a state government facing a $3.5 billion shortfall.

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