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Jefferson County backs off on director's dismissal

November 30, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION

After hearing criticism from citizens who likened it to a "train wreck" and the "most bizarre happening" in the county for some time, Jefferson County Commission members backed off Thursday on an attempt to terminate longtime county planning director Paul Raco from his job after an overflow crowd of about 70 people showed up at the commission's regular meeting.

The crowd from inside commission chambers spilled into the hallway in the Jefferson County Courthouse. Among those present were former Jefferson County Commission members Jim Ruland, Greg Lance and Dean Hockensmith.

Jefferson County Commission President Greg Corliss made a motion at the Dec. 14 commission meeting to terminate Raco from his job as executive director of the Jefferson County Department of Planning, Zoning and Engineering. Raco has held the job for more than 20 years. Commission members Dale Manuel and Jane Tabb were visibly upset by the move and fought it.

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Corliss ended up withdrawing his motion, but the issue was put back on the agenda for Thursday's meeting for discussion.

Lance referred to Corliss' term in the U.S. Marines, and said that Corliss would not have done anything to a fellow soldier like he treated Raco last week.

Lance made a comment to Commissioner Rusty Morgan, then turned his attention to Commissioner Jim Surkamp.

"Sir, you're a disgrace to the seat you hold," said Lance, his comment followed by claps from audience members.

Commissioner Dale Manuel called for speakers to be civil.

"I think this could get out of hand at some point," Manuel said.

Citizens overwhelmingly spoke in objection to the termination attempt, saying it was a breach of public trust and saying that the commission members should give Raco a chance to make changes in the way he manages the county planning office if the commission does not like the operation of the office.

After about 20 people spoke on Thursday, Manuel said he has seen no reason for the attempt to terminate Raco from his job, and made a motion to remove three items of business from the commission's agenda.

One item was a management reorganization of Raco's department, the second was setting a date to discuss terminating Raco from his job and the third was "termination of employment ? Mr. Raco."

Although Corliss, Morgan and Surkamp voted against Manuel's motion, the commission later removed the management reorganization item from the agenda and the termination of employment, leaving the item that dealt with setting a date to discuss the termination of Raco.

After a long closed-door session with their lawyers, the commission voted to remove the remaining item dealing with Raco from the agenda.

After coming out of the closed-door session, Tabb tried to make a motion, but Corliss said he had the floor.

Corliss then made the motion to remove the item.

"You took the words right out of my mouth," Tabb said.

Surkamp, who has said Raco's office needs "serious reorganizing," said after the meeting that Raco has not been cooperating with a firm that has been hired to help the county rewrite the county's land-use laws.

Denying that the attempt to terminate Raco from his job was a "no-growth scheme," Surkamp said Raco needs to be more open about the proposals from Kendig Keast Collaborative.

Corliss downplayed Surkamp's comments that the termination attempt had anything to do with Raco's views of the Kendig Keast Collaborative proposals.

Corliss has said one reason he proposed terminating Raco from his position is because the county is developing new land-use regulations, and he believes now is the time for new management in the county's planning office.

Corliss would not say after the meeting what led the commission to change its mind about terminating Raco from his job.

"We had a lot of good comments," said Corliss, adding that the commission considered them and the advice of their lawyers in making their decision.

Raco said after the meeting that hopefully the issue is over, and now he and his staff can "do our jobs."

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