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Halifax County administrator draws fire from staff

South Boston News
Director of Finance Stephanie Jackson and County Administrator Jim Halasz
SoVaNow.com / January 15, 2015
A level down from the political deadlock that has paralyzed the Halifax County Board of Supervisors, there’s ill will roiling the County Administration office — as evidenced by complaints about the management styles of County Administrator Jim Halasz and Finance Director Stephanie Jackson from two department-level heads, past and present.

County Planner Robbie Love, a 20-year veteran of local government, and Kirby Saunders, Halifax’s former emergency services coordinator who departed in mid-2014 to take a similar position in Orange County, N.C., each offered stinging criticisms of Halasz in separate interviews this week.

“There was extreme micromanagement,” said Saunders, who quit after nearly five years in his county post to go to work for Orange County. Saunders said he had wide-ranging concerns with how Halasz and Jackson handled personnel and procedural matters within the administration office. He said he took his grievances to the supervisors’ personnel committee, only to see the matter bottled up once the full board got involved.

“I made my complaint and when it didn’t go anywhere, I had no option but to seek other employment,” he said.

For his part, Love said he has been subjected to “harassment” and contends “there have been continuous efforts by the county administrator and finance director to eliminate me.” After bringing his grievances to the full Board of Supervisors, he, too, received no formal response.

“I truly feel that some members of the Board of Supervisors have also participated in trying to remove me from office either directly and some indirectly,” he stated.

In addition to his own situation, Love called attention to what he describes as “discriminatory remarks” by Halasz around the time Earl Womack resigned his seat in January 2014. Womack, who represented the black-majority Election District 3 for a brief time on the board before quitting — he was indicted months later for felony embezzlement and fraud — tendered his resignation in a letter that included a request for supervisors to appoint an African-American successor to his district. “He [Halasz] didn’t like what was in the letter,” said Love.

“He was visibly aggravated …. He felt the contents of it were ridiculous.”

Love said the exchange with Halasz took place on the day after the board meeting, in which the letter was read aloud in Womack’s absence by William Bryant Claiborne, the board’s vice-chair and only other African-American supervisor. Love said Halasz approached him at the office and “had some very choice words and said he didn’t like the way Mr. Claiborne handled it.”

No slurs were uttered in the exchange, but there was bitterness in Halasz’ tone: “In my hearing, that’s what I took from it. I considered it discriminatory,” said Love. “One of the things he said is that Mr. Claiborne is going to have problems finding allies on the board [in choosing Womack’s replacement]… for anything he wants to do in the county.

“He made some discriminatory remarks, and so I told Mr. Claiborne about it immediately.”

Halasz, asked about the assertions from the two department heads, said he has “very good” relationships with county employees under his purview and with each member of the Board of Supervisors. He said he had no recollection of the conversation with Love, and added, “I really did have a good relationship with Mr. Womack,” who brought fresh energy and enthusiasm to the position, in his view. “I enjoyed working with him.

“It was horrible, it was horrible for him, it was horrible for his family,” said Halasz of the departure of the former supervisor, who even then was widely rumored to have run afoul of the law. “I was very disappointed that something that seemed positive [for the board] turned out to be not positive, for him and the county.”

He denied making any statements that disparaged Womack, Claiborne or the request to appoint a black representative to the board. “I didn’t feel like Mr. Claiborne in any way diminished his ability to offer up candidates,” said Halasz.

Claiborne, the alleged target of Halasz’s ire, declined comment.

***

Following Womack’s resignation, supervisors appointed Ray Owen, the second-highest vote-getter in the 2013 election that put Womack in office, to serve until a special election was held. Owen subsequently lost in November to Hubert Pannell, who this month provided the fourth vote that furnishes the board’s heretofore minority faction — Claiborne, Barry Bank and Lottie Nunn — with equal, but not decisive, power.

Those three veteran supervisors also form the Board’s personnel and policy committee, the same group that first heard Love’s and Saunders’ grievances at an April 2014 committee meeting. In May, the full board convened behind closed doors to discuss personnel matters, and, in a rarity, came back out into public session unable to act on a rote piece of business: a declaration attesting that only matters exempt from public disclosure laws were discussed during the closed session. The vote failed on a 4-4 tie.

Along with the three dissenters, Larry Giordano cast the other “no” vote on the declaration, which is required by law whenever closed-door meetings are held. The minutes show Giordano objected to the discussion as being “too personal.” He was unavailable to comment.

Other supervisors contacted this week declined to address the assertions against Halasz and Jackson or alleged turmoil at the county administration office, citing privacy laws that prevent them from discussing personnel matters. However, ED-1 supervisor J.T. Davis said he was dismayed to learn about the controversy and voiced support for Halasz’s performance in office.

“I think Jim is doing a good job. He’s very smart, he’s very knowledgeable — let’s say his performance is satisfactory,” said Davis. He added, “Jim is a person who expects people to do their job” and “I’ve been in business long enough to know that when you do your job [as a manager] you’re going to step on people’s toes.

“You cannot let the tail wag the dog.”

Regarding alleged comments by Halasz that others construe as discriminatory, Davis said, “I don’t think Jim is any way a racist.”

***

Love, the county planner, said his relationship with the county administrator deteriorated sharply in fall 2013 after he objected to the role that Jackson, the finance director, asserted over department personnel. In particular, he said, Jackson ordered the only staff member in the planning office, David Day, to submit paperwork to her whenever he asked for employee leave time. Up until that time, Love said, it had been his responsibility, and that of other department heads, to sign off on leave slips.

That was one instance of “little nit-picky stuff” that eventually prompted Love to complain to Halasz about interference coming from the finance director. “I immediately began noticing a change in his attitude towards me,” said Love. Halasz “suddenly began to become critical of my work performance and my outside activities.”

For his part, Halasz denied that Jackson usurped the authority of department heads — and says the responsibility for signing off on employee leave continues to lie with department heads. Jackson, in an email response, also said the assertion was groundless: “I sign leave slips and time sheets for the personnel I directly supervise. I do not sign leave slips for other departments …. I perform tasks as outlined in my job description or as assigned by my supervisor,” she continued.

Chaffing under what he viewed as ongoing interference from Jackson and Halasz, and bothered by the exchange with the county administrator about Earl Womack’s letter and departure, Love said he decided to take his case to the supervisors’ personnel committee.

The decision was dictated in part by county policy that excludes department heads from the grievance process — which designates Halasz as the final arbiter, unless employees are willing to take their appeals to court.

Saunders criticized the policy — “it was restricting my constitutional rights” — and said he had similar troubles with outside interference in his job as emergency services coordinator: “It’s not a very conducive work environment, I can tell you that.” He said Halasz relied on Jackson to carry out directives that should have come personally from the county administrator, leaving the staff uncertain about who to talk to in a given situation or what to expect next.

“The way Stephanie Jackson conducts business, it’s not a conducive way for any business or county government to function,” he said.

Saunders also said that Halasz made clear around the office his authority to hire and fire personnel, and did not seek out the views of members of the staff other than Jackson’s. “Anything you ask Jim Halasz about in the office — policy or personnel, strategic action or development … it always had to go through Stephanie Jackson. Verbatim, he’d say, ‘I’ve got to ask Stephanie’ …. It was obvious that Stephanie Jackson was going to become the assistant county administrator.”

Halasz, asked if he has sought to have Jackson named assistant administrator, declined comment.

Jackson, in an email response, denied acting in Halasz’s stead: “I only supervise my department. I work with all departments on their budgets, purchasing, insurance, fixed assets, and other financial matters. Any additional work performed is assigned by my supervisor. I am not manipulative. I work with all departments to accomplish County wide goals.”

Saunders offered a rebuttal: “He’s always betrayed a sense of being above you, of being on a different level than anybody. That may just be his personality — not his fault, per se, just the way he is. Those two” — Halasz and Jackson — control the show. There are no ifs, ands, buts about it.”

A low moment for Saunders came when the county staff gathered to discuss preparations for a major winter storm, and Saunders wanted to talk about keeping in close touch with employees in case the county needed to open up emergency shelters. Halasz’s response, he said, was “he didn’t think that was necessary and people could go without power for a few days, what’s the big deal with that.

“It was a hard pill to swallow — he said that in the middle of a meeting in front of a bunch of department heads. It was demeaning to me. Several people came up afterwards and asked me what that was all about.”

Asked about the episode, Halasz said he had no recollection of “the specific issue or any similar issue.”

***

If his style seems brusque, he added, it may be because it’s different than that of predecessors that county employees may have gotten accustomed to. “I’m a little more assertive and more aggressive. I want to bring forward value to the board and the county and I want the staff to do that in a straightforward fashion.” Prior administrators “may not have been as willing to force an issue or present information that might not be well received.

“The board and the citizens can only make good assessments if they’re given clear information. I don’t believe in sugarcoating anything because I don’t believe that gets you anywhere.”

In response to the criticisms from employees, Halasz stated, “I do not believe my words, actions or management style would be characterized as ‘micromanagement’ and in no way have I prevented employees from pursuing ‘grievances’ or issues — except that I have been consistent about following proper policies and procedures.”

On why criticisms are surfacing now, Halasz replied: “Going back to the motives of others, I can’t speak to that.”









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Comments

Why do you all have to hire some out of down dip chit from Michigan that probably never operated any business of his own. One look in the mirror and then to your left and right should clearly indicate the voters of Halifax County much prefer local dip chits to the implanted ones.

Comments

Has everyone forgotten that prior to 2007 the position of finance director did not exist. The county had operated fine without that position and the other 2 that were created then.

Comments

I totally agree with Kirby. A couple of times I have tried to contact him with no response, was told then to contact Jackson, no response. A person from Michigan if mirror mirror is correct has no clue what is needed in a rural southern county. We the people need to stand up and demand better. I have said that we don't need a finance director. Now people can understand why Bank and the county administrator want to do away with the the treasurer and the commissioner of the revenue. Also Please sign my petition not to raise taxes.
http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/dont-raise-taxes-in-halifax-county-virginia

Comments

Seems like all that are making comments here are in agreement fire the finance director, so why won't the BOS listen to the people?
Went to sign the petition saw that only 18 people had singed,everyone reading these articles should sign this.

Comments

This boolshat has got to stop. It's gone past ludicrous.

I'm starting to think the only resolution is to remove every one of the Supervisors from office and then terminate every administrator and department head in County government.

Sometimes starting with a clean slate is the only solution.

Comments

Everything Robbie and Kirby says is correct. I just don't have the courage to give my name because I am afraid for my job. Mr. Halasz is a tyrant and he has forbidden me from talking to Board of Supervisors. He sends everything through Stephanie. She has cameras in her office to monitor our every move. He told me he was my boss not the Board of Supervisors. Thank you for your courage Robbie and Kirby along with Mr. Claiborne, Mr. Bank, Mrs. Nunn and Mr. Pannell. You have the employees best interest at heart.

Comments

Mr. John Wagstaff,
Be advised that I have never proposed or do I support eliminating the Constitutional offices of Treasurer or Commissioner of Revenue.

You must have me confused with someone else on the BOS. You can confirm my positon with the holders of these offices or Mr. Claiborne, Mrs. Nunn or Mr. Pannell.

Comments

I have been in all County buildings doing business and there are cameras everywhere, security cameras. The Courthouse, Treasurers offie, Commissioners office, Sheriff office. They are there for safety. Anywhere there is money there are cameras. Banks, stores, etc. Halzs is not a tyrant. Sounds like he is doing his job. Afraid for your job? Come on folks.

Comments

"Asked about the episode, Halasz said he had no recollection of “the specific issue or any similar issue.”" Sounds to me like Halasz has the makings of fine modern day politician. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TsPneeBHRok

Comments

JT Davis remember this, public servants shouldn't be wagging anything.

Comments

Hully jayzus they actually READ these peanut galleries!

If that IS the case, nare one of these Supervisors or administrators can claim they're unaware of public sentiment. "Those who use their position for personal gain eventually run afoul of public opinion." Attributed to no less a sage than Confucius himself.


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