CORRECTION: A series of social media posts, first critical of the county financial director and then of county administrator, first appeared on Sept. 23 on the Facebook page of Jefferson County Perspective, a politically conservative citizens group. On Oct. 17, Commissioner Tricia Jackson first publicly explained in a social media post her motion and vote two days earlier to discharge the county administrator. The commissioner explained her differences she had with the financial director in a statement she released Dec. 6, which the Spirit of Jefferson published.
A previously published version of the following story incorrectly reported the time that had transpired between the Jefferson County Perspective posts and Jackson’s public statements.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following story posted on The Spirit's website on Dec. 29 did not include the following denial from Mark Everhart, who is mentioned and quoted in story.
Everhart states that in 2020 he voluntarily resigned his position as treasurer of the Jefferson County Republican Executive Committee. He said he resigned over social media revelations over two misdemeanor convictions in Baltimore County. He disputes a public statement reportedly issued April 7, 2020, by the GOP leadership committee that the committee’s members had “called for and accepted” his resignation.
Everhart provided the Spirit with a copy of what appears to be an April 4, 2020, email where he submitted his resignation to Steve Stolipher, who was then and still is chairman of the executive committee. He now also serves as a Jefferson County commissioner.
On Dec. 30, Stolipher stated the executive committee stands behind the public statement provided to the Spirit that Everhart was asked to resign from the committee. The committee's statement said Everhart was asked to resign because of racially defamatory postings on a Reddit social media account allegedly controlled by him. Stolipher said the formal minutes of the committee's meeting on April 7, 2020, reflect that statement. The Spirit has not obtained copy of those minutes.
CHARLES TOWN – Assailed by unfounded but persistent, and some say orchestrated, social media attacks and innuendo since last September, Jefferson County’s finance director resigned last week to accept another finance-related job in Maryland.
“We have lost very competent people in the county commission staff,” said Commissioner Jane Tabb, who has defended and praised County Finance Director Michelle Gordon during the turmoil created by the anonymous social media posts. “It’s going to be very difficult to do the budget and have all the knowledge that we need to make important decisions.
“And, in the end, it will be the citizens of Jefferson County that lose.”
Gordon declined to comment about her decision to leave the county’s top financial post, for which she was hired in 2016.
During a regularly scheduled meeting next Thursday, the commission will discuss whether to accept an offer from Gordon to work evenings and on weekends to help the commission prepare the county government’s next 2021-2022 budget, Commission President Steve Stolipher said.
The budget process begins next month with a state-imposed deadline at the end of March. The county operates with a general budget of $26 million for multiple agencies and departments with more than 300 employees.
“Michelle, she’s just a whiz at the finances,” Tabb said of Gordon. “Anytime we asked her a question, she knew it right off the top of her head. That is such a valuable resource.”
Stolipher said he appreciated that Gordon is willing to assist the commission through the county’s next annual budget-making process. He said that would give the commissioners time to hire a new financial director with the complicated budget process behind them.
Starting in September, Gordon was targeted by social media posts highlighting a 2013 news article by the Herald-Mail newspaper of Hagerstown, Maryland, over her previous resignation from the city of Hagerstown. Gordon resigned over an undisclosed matter involving “less than 1,000” in city funds that Gordon would repay.
No charges were filed in the matter, which Gordon hasn’t publicly commented on.
No accusation has been made that anyone on the commission’s staff has mishandled Jefferson County funds. Stolipher, who called the questioning of Gordon’s ability to serve as financial director “unfair,” said Gordon passed a federal background security review to land her new job.
Nevertheless, a social media site called Jefferson County Perspective began demanding in a series of hardline commentaries that Gordon’s work as finance director for Jefferson County should be audited.
Those social media posts, often providing snapshots of documents and articles framed by critical commentary, have emanated from a Facebook page controlled by Mark Everhart, a former Jefferson County Republican Party Executive Committee leader from Shepherdstown.
In 2020, Everhart abandoned an election campaign for state delegate representing Jefferson County. He did so after court documents were posted on a progressive social media site summarizing his past conviction for harassment and violating a protective order during a previous divorce in Baltimore County. The Facebook site for Progressive Jefferson also posted defamatory screenshots from a Reddit social media account allegedly linked to Everhart.
Everhart acknowledged to the Spirit that he has been involved in posting on Facebook court documents stemming from a similarly contentious divorce that Gordon underwent. He has not revealed the source of the documents that were posted.
Gordon was never convicted of any charges that arose during her divorce.
This week the Facebook page Everhart controls applauded Gordon’s resignation. “We look forward to continuing to expose issues related to Jefferson [C]ounty’s government in 2022 and hope to continue to publish information that leads to the resignation of employees and elected officials that we believe aren’t acting in the best interest of Jefferson County’s residents,” the page anonymously states.
Both Tabb and Stolipher have been targets of his online criticism, most recently over their defense of Gordon in her financial role in serving the commission.
Gordon’s voluntary departure from Jefferson County government leaves a single employee serving the county commission office. Deputy County Administrator Sandy McDonald began temporarily acting as county administrator after the commission voted 3-2 on Oct. 21 to accept a “mutual” separation agreement with former county administrator Stephanie Grove, who also became a target of unnamed social media accusations that Everhart was involved in.
An administrative assistant, who was never targeted by social media posts but worked closely with Gordon and Grove, left her commission office job two weeks ago for another position with the city of Ranson. (County attorney and commission legal advisor Nathan Cochran works in the Hunter House commission office but is an employee of the county’s prosecutor’s office.)
Tabb, who was among the commissioner who originally hired Gordon, said the accusations against Gordon and Grove have damaged employee trust and confidence across the county government. She said other employees have been worried that they could be targeted next. “Among employees, there’s just a toxic atmosphere,” she said. “Everybody is scared for their jobs.
“Morale is in the basement.”
Tabb said the hostile atmosphere could be prompting more employees to find new jobs, she said.
The low morale from leery employees appears to be reducing cooperation and communication, Tabb said. More employees are extremely cautious about what they say, do or document, she said. “I don’t think there’s a sharing of resources or communication within the departments because everybody is just trying to stay on the straight and narrow and not do anything that may be interpreted as a wrong or incorrect action,” she said.
“I know some employees have become targets through no fault of their own,” she continued. “I can’t say any more. I’m trying to tread carefully and not put anyone in any greater danger.”
“I really don’t understand it,” she said. “It’s just terrible, though, what’s happened.”
Stolipher acknowledged the social media attacks against Gordon and Grove initially depressed the morale of county employees. But Stolipher said the employees have begun to settle down. Several realized or were told that most employees can’t be fired without a majority vote of the entire commission, he said.
Tabb acknowledged that no single commissioner can discipline or terminate any county employee. Such action would require three votes from the five-member commission.
Tabb added that there’s no majority on the commission that she’s aware of that is seeking to target and terminate employees in the ranks of the county government’s staff. But that doesn’t mean top individual officials in county government aren’t determined to closely scrutinize employees for possible firings, she added.
Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Harvey has been overseeing an investigation into how those court records had been obtained, possibly illegally, from a restricted law enforcement database.
According to commission observers inside and outside county government, control over county money, spending and budgets could be a motivation behind the social media attacks against Gordon and Grove, who was Gordon’s supervisor.
Sheriff Tom Hansen clashed with Gordon over her role as the financial advisor and watchdog for the commission, which has ultimate statutory responsibility for county government spending. The sheriff’s office also has access to the court documents.
Hansen has acknowledged that he believes Gordon had repeatedly overstepped on the sheriff’s authority over how he can direct the spending of the taxpayer money the commission allocates. “Since taking office, I have expressed my concerns with [Jefferson County] Commissioners on multiple occasions in reference to overreaching actions of the Financial Director,” the sheriff wrote in a statement released in October. “It seems these concerns have fallen on deaf ears.
“To be clear, once the County Commission approves the budget of an Elected Official, it has little to no control over how the Elected Official choose to spend their budget as long as the Official stays within their set budget (WV Code 7-7-).”
County Clerk Jacki Shadle, whose elected responsibility includes maintaining county documents ranging from land deeds to citizens’ wills to commission minutes, has also clashed with Gordon. Shadle, whose office also plays a role with the commission in paying county bills, has asked to discuss how she and her office should be given more access and control over an accounting and document management software platform the county government uses.
Gordon has been outspoken in advising the commission that giving Shadle such unlimited access to the county’s Tyler Technologies platform would violate standard accounting, financial and confidential document controls. One concern by some commissioners is whether giving Shadle the broad electronic access she is seeking would create a security loophole allowing access to confidential documents such as personnel records of agencies and departments she doesn’t oversee.
Commissioner Tricia Jackson, a personnel consultant, has publicly acknowledged her goal to restore “fiscal responsibility” to the county government. She has been the lone commissioner who has openly sided with Shadle so far.
Jackson also proposed the first public vote in October to discharge Grove over a matter discussed in a closed executive session. That vote failed 3-2, but Grove was removed a week later after Stolipher joined Jackson and Commissioner Clare Ath to accept the separation agreement with Grove.
“I told you I would be your voice on the county commission and would strive to spend your money wisely,” Jackson wrote on Facebook afterward. “I also promised to work to make Jefferson County government more accountable and more efficient.”
In an email sent on Tuesday, Jackson stated that Gordon’s resignation was not expected and a surprise. She wrote that she did not receive word about Gordon’s resignation until her last day, although a letter was provided to Stolipher. She wrote that she hopes communication about such high-level staff changes can be improved for the future.
Jackson wrote that Grove’s parting with the county last month was “voluntary and amicable as evidenced by the separation agreement reached and executed by the parties involved.”
“I, therefore, consider matters regarding Ms. Grove to be closed, and I wish her well in her future endeavors,” she concluded on that point.
As for employee morale, Jackson said it’s too soon to determine what the effects of the turmoil created by the Gordon and Grove controversies might have on staff and that she “would not want to speculate” about it now.
“I am concerned about potential continuity issues and I believe that we need to ensure that the taxpayers of Jefferson County are properly served by their county government,” Jackson wrote. “We need to get moving on this immediately, and I intend to do just that.”
First prompted by Ath, the commission initiated another audit of county finances since 2016, covering the time Gordon served as finance director.
Ath did not return messages from the Spirit seeking comment on Gordon’s resignation or about any county employee morale problem. Jackson was elected to the commission last November. Ath was appointed to the commission in May.
Tabb, serving her third term on the county commission, said she doesn’t fully understand what is driving the ongoing scrutiny of county employees. “Apparently, the former commission that I was a part of—we’ve been doing everything wrong,” she said. “That’s the impression I get. That we’ve got to clean out and we’ve got to start over. And I don’t think that’s a true assessment of the situation.”