Commission made right move, but private discussions a concern

First Posted: 1/15/2009

Thursday night, the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners opted not to renew the present contract of City Manager Don Brookshire.
Many of you probably know the particulars his three-year contract was set to expire on March 31, and the commissioners had until Dec. 31 to decide whether to renew the pact, offer a new one, or end their association with Brookshire. If no decision was made by Dec. 31, the present agreement contained an automatic one-year renewal clause. The sticking point, according to some commissioners, was the severance package if Brookshire was fired without cause. That package included a years salary, payment of medical insurance costs, payment for unused vacation time and other benefits.
Commissioners said on several occasions Brookshires job performance was not at issue, merely the severance package, which some thought to be excessive given the economic plight Mount Airy and its residents are facing.
Both parties agreed last month to extend the deadline to Jan. 31, and last night the commissioner voted unanimously not to extend the contract.
First, people should not read too much into that move. On its surface, the action simply and most likely means the commissioners did not like the terms of the agreement. Last nights actions do not necessarily portend anything in terms of Brookshire remaining with the city.
And, it certainly seems to be a good, wise move by the commissioners. The severance package, which could be more aptly termed a golden parachute, was excessive for a city dealing with a budget crunch while many of its residents struggle simply to keep their homes heated and food on the table.
Some have said, essentially, whats the big deal? If the commissioners dont let a city manager go without cause, and the city manager gives the commissioners no reason to fire him, the severance package never comes into play.
The problem with that line of reasoning is twofold. First, and probably a little more abstract, is the principle at work here. A public servant, one who has willingly chosen to take a government job, should not stand to walk away from a job with that much taxpayer money.
Second, and much more practical, is the fact that should an involuntary separation take place, whats the definition of without cause? A commission might very well thing it has just cause, but the one being fired might challenge such reasoning. Once lawyers and the court system become involved, suddenly the golden parachute might have been cheaper for the city, even if it wins in litigation.
Yes, the commissioners made the right move in this instance.
What is disturbing, however, is the fact that the board again went behind closed doors to discuss what should be a public matter. Let us repeat, the commissioners who spoke to us were very clear, the only issue that gave them pause was the severance package, not Brookshires performance. If they were honest in those statements, if the commissioners were not discussing job performance issues pertaining to the city manager, the meeting should have been in public.
Just because a board can meet in closed session does not always mean it should.

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