CHARLES TOWN – The Jefferson County Commission moved to hire a new county administrator last week as the current administrator approaches her last day in the job on Friday.
The five commissioners unanimously voted to release a notice seeking job applicants. The position, which oversees all county government operations, offers a salary range of $103,454 to $113,799.
Assistant County Administrator Sandy McDonald will serve as acting administrator until a replacement is named for the county’s top staff position.
Stephanie Grove, the current administrator, negotiated a “mutual” separation agreement with the commission three weeks ago. The agreement was arranged after Grove was drawn into a controversy stemming from citizen comments voicing concerns stemming from social media postings about the management of the county government.
Since then, the controversy has widened to encompass investigations over whether confidential government documents were leaked to spark the public controversy in the first place.
Meanwhile, after conducting another closed-door discussion on the matter last week, the commission agreed to an undisclosed change to the separation agreement “as amended by Miss Grove’s counsel,” as Commissioner Steve Stolipher explained.
Stolipher publicly pointed out that Grove was not fired when the commission voted 3-2 on Oct. 21 to approve an agreement where she would depart the county’s top management position this Friday.
Stolipher emphasized that the agreement over Grove’s departure was mutual and that Grove “was not terminated.”
No wrongdoing or mismanagement by anyone on the county commission’s staff has been publicly reported.
Grove has declined to comment on the matter.
Commissioners Jane Tabb and Caleb Hudson voted against the personnel action involving Grove’s departure. Tabb publicly defended Grove’s service to the commission and the county’s government as an administrator overseeing more than 200 employees.
“I feel Ms. Grove has been an excellent county administrator,” Tabb said last month while the commissioners were drawn into examining murky, unsubstantiated allegations prompted by documents posted on social media by a conservative citizen’s group.
However, after initiating the first commission motion to uphold Grove’s departure, Commissioner Tricia Jackson, a human resources consultant, advocated for taking the personnel action in an Oct. 17 social media post.
“In reviewing the performance of our current County Administrator, brought on board by a previous administration, I have come to the conclusion that we can and must do better,” Jackson wrote.
“The decisions being made are not good,” she continued. “They amount to mismanagement, and I believe that it would be a dereliction of duty to continue to overlook the risks, exposure and costs that are being borne by the taxpayers.”
The controversy started before Grove’s departure agreement when court documents and a 2013 news article related to the county’s current finance director were posted on Facebook. Responding to two citizens who publicly voiced concerns about the news article anonymously spread on social media.
The article reported that Michelle Gordon had resigned eight years ago as the financial director for the city of Hagerstown, Maryland, before she was hired as Jefferson County’s financial director in 2016.
The article, along with other posts of criminal court records stemming from an apparent domestic dispute, was highlighted on a Facebook page maintained by a conservative citizens group, Jefferson County Perspective. The group’s Facebook page was taken down late last month.
The Herald-Mail newspaper article quoted Hagerstown officials that Gordon’s resignation involved “misuse of city money” totaling less than $1,000. No charges were filed in the matter.
Responding to the citizens’ concerns, the Jefferson County commissioners agreed to conduct a special review of the county government’s already audited financial activities, and Gordon remains the financial director.
However, Jackson joined citizens in publicly questioning Grove’s management oversight. Commissioner Clare Ath also called for a special meeting to examine the concerns citizens publicly voiced. The concerns included a claim disputed by former county commissioner Patsy Noland that a sufficient background check wasn’t done before Gordon was hired.
Noland said a previous commission conducted a background check. She added that hiring the finance director was the commission’s responsibility and not that of the county administrator. “It’s a real travesty what’s happening now on the county commission with your own staff,” she said while commenting before the commission on Oct. 21, “and I think that you need to take another look at it and reconsider the comments that you’ve made.”
Before then, Sheriff Tom Hansen had acknowledged he has been clashing with Gordon over what he claims is interference with his own financial authority over the sheriff’s department and county tax office.
Hansen was elected sheriff last November and took office in January. Since then, he has publicly argued with commissioners over their budgeting and spending authority. More recently, however, the sheriff cited his conflict with Gordon over her purported attempts to control his spending.
“I have questioned the actions of the Financial Director who has continuously exerted excessive control over my budget,” Hansen stated in a prepared statement issued Oct. 19.
“As a former member of this [sheriff’s] department who worked intimately with the budget before retirement, I find this overreach troubling, as I have not witnessed this type of control with any prior administration,” his statement continued. “I am confident that if a review of my spending were conducted it will show it has all been for the betterment of the department and the community.”