POINT PLEASANT — A former employee of the Mason County Assessor’s Office returned to the court house last week to speak to the Mason County Commission.
As previously reported, Sally Smith, the former chief deputy at the assessor’s office, told the Point Pleasant Register she was let go from her job in April. She also said four other employees reportedly resigned from their positions in the assessor’s office the day after she was fired. Smith previously worked in the county clerk’s office, the commission’s finance office and previously worked in the assessor’s office before her most recent stint there, working for Assessor Ron Hickman. Hickman has been in office for over 20 years and was recently reelected to another term last November.
Smith said she had concerns to bring to the commission, saying taxpayers still contacted her about issues they needed answers to from the assessor’s office. She also said she would like an answer to letters she received from Hickman’s office saying she was let go due to “gross misconduct.” She said the letters listed nothing to back up that claim.
She stated on March 30, she and the other four employees wrote a letter of pending resignation to Hickman and the commission, saying issues needed to be addressed. She said the letter indicated if the issues weren’t addressed the staff would resign in a certain time frame. She said those issues included new employees being told they would get evaluations throughout their employment and those evaluations not occurring; non smokers not getting breaks when smokers got breaks; cell phone use, etc. Smith said after the letter was sent, she was called into Hickman’s office, with Commissioners Sam Nibert, Tracy Doolittle and Rick Handley in the room and the only thing that was stated was Hickman saying “you’re no longer needed.” She said she assumed she was dismissed because Hickman didn’t want to address the issues in the letter. She said six days after she was let go, she received a letter on behalf of Hickman stating she was terminated due to that alleged gross misconduct. She told commissioners she was the only one out of the five former employees who received the letter. She said when Hickman’s office appealed her unemployment, she showed up for the hearing in front of a judge who Smith said found no evidence of gross misconduct and she was granted unemployment.
At the meeting with commissioners, Smith also questioned using taxpayer money to write the three letters to her from Hickman’s office.
Hickman was at the meeting but did not speak. However, speaking on behalf of Hickman was Attorney Stephen Sluss with the West Virginia Assessor’s Association. Sluss said these were personnel matters that were never intended to be aired in the public.
“She’s come here in front of the public, on record, making sugarcoated claims and yet if Mr. Hickman would release what he had, that would be a violation,” Sluss said about releasing personnel matters and laws that prohibit that release.
Sluss did say he didn’t have the specific information that was gathered in the matter in terms of how the alleged gross misconduct was determined but would get with the person who would’ve done any investigation into the claim and would see what could legally be released to Smith.
There was also an exchange about bookkeeping processes and routine audits of the assessor’s office with County Administrator John Gerlach saying no money was ever found to be missing in Hickman’s office.
Smith also questioned not having a full time mapper in the assessor’s office, saying taxpayers have issues of viewing a map or having questions about a map and no one to answer those questions on a full-time basis.
Commissioners ultimately said, they control the budgets for county offices but it is up to the office holder to run that office as they see fit. Smith said she came to the county commission with these issues after being advised to do so by the West Virginia Ethics Commission, after taking those issues, and others she said she didn’t speak about in the public meeting, to that organization as well. Sluss said those issues she was referring to were dismissed by the ethics commission.
Sluss reiterated a statement made by Gerlach saying Hickman had been in office for over 20 years and Sluss added he was recently recognized by voters by being reelected, and had also recently been recognized by his peers.
“This is an attempt to air grievances in the public because Mr. Hickman can’t take personnel grievances to the public but you (Smith) can,” Sluss aid. “In my opinion this is an effort to embarrass Mr. Hickman.”
Smith said she disagreed with that assessment.
“These are issues that I have tired to get answers to that I’ve not got answers to,” she said. “The ethics commission sent me a notice and that said it needed to go before the county commission on the agenda.”
Also at the recent commission meeting, Sherry Hayes, the Putnam County Assessor who, along with her staff, have been training new employees in Hickman’s office.
West Virginia is an at-will employment state.
Commissioners Doolittle, Nibert and Handley were in attendance for last week’s regular meeting.
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.