Wednesday, April 17, 2024

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Commissioners mum, but public records, other sources provide clues to firing

Alamance County’s commissioners have been mum about the reasons they dismissed their long-time attorney Clyde Albright.

For his part, Albright has raised the specter that the underlying motive was age discrimination. [See separate story this edition.]

“For reasons you are aware, including not performing your job at a level which meets the board’s expectations and due to your unsatisfactory job performance, you are hereby dismissed effective immediately.”

– Dismissal letter signed by all five county commissioners

While no source was willing to speak on the record about the controversy surrounding Albright’s firing, consistently citing “personnel” restrictions as a reason to withhold details, The Alamance News has pieced together some information from public records and other sources with knowledge about the background or history of the controversy.

In response to a public records request filed by The Alamance News last week, the county provided a copy of the termination letter given to Albright Wednesday morning (October 6); “For reasons you are aware, including not performing your job at a level which meets the board’s expectations and due to your unsatisfactory job performance, you are hereby dismissed effective immediately.”

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The letter was signed by all five county commissioners: chairman John Paisley, Jr., vice chairman Steve Carter, Pam Thompson, Bill Lashley, and Craig Turner.

No further explanation is given. The letter is also misdated as September 6, rather than October 6, as Hook noted in her e-mail to the newspaper.

However, Albright is instructed by the letter to “return all attorney/client privileged electronic and written documents.”

Additionally, he is directed, “For all litigated matters [for which] you are counsel of record, upon receipt of motions to substitute counsel and/or motions to withdrawal [sic], to the extent your signature is required, it is our expectation that you will sign the motions, return the signed motions to the county immediately, and to the extent the motions are required to be heard, you will fully cooperate.”

In providing the information the newspaper sought under the state’s Public Records Law, Sherry Hook – who serves both as director of human resources and as assistant county manager – confirmed that Albright had no “contract” with county government.

State law has a singular sentence authorizing, indeed requiring a county attorney to be hired. “The board of commissioners shall appoint a county attorney to serve at its pleasure and to be its legal adviser.”

Like most employment in the state, the “at its pleasure” phraseology allows wide discretion for the board to determine when a county attorney can be fired.

Hook also said Albright had no disciplinary actions against him – an aspect of a public employee’s personnel record that is subject to disclosure under state law.

Albright began his employment with the county as assistant county attorney January 16, 2007. Almost two years later, on January 1, 2009, he was named county attorney.

His starting salary was $75,770 and rose over the years (with 10 subsequent increases) to$129,307.13 when he was fired last week.

Under state law, an elected body may go into closed to session to discuss specific personnel matters, such as the character or fitness of a prospective employee or to investigate a complaint or grievance against someone it already employs. The law nevertheless obligates the elected body to take “final action making an appointment or discharge or removal” of an employee “in an open meeting.”

This particular provision was one of three that the commissioners cited to justify a closed-door discussion during an otherwise open meeting last Monday, October 4.

As noted last week and elsewhere in this edition, the members of Alamance County’s board of commissioners made no mention of any action pertaining to Albright when they reconvened in open session that week.

And Albright has already signaled that he may challenge his firing based on the Open Meetings Law violation.

In addition to last Monday’s closed session, the commissioners have gone behind closed doors three times since May to discuss personnel matters: May 3, July 19, and August 16.
The newspaper has been unable to confirm how many of those occasions were to discuss the county’s attorney’s job performance.

However, at least one of them appeared to concern Albright.

In each of the three cases, the board also went into closed session for the added purpose of preserving the attorney-client privilege. Yet in at least one instance, the county attorney remained outside the separate meeting room where the commissioners went for the closed-door discussion, which prompted the newspaper to inquire how the board could go into closed session to consult with an attorney without having the county attorney present.

The dismissal letter given to Albright seems to point to the likelihood that the commissioners had apparently discussed the attorney’s performance in at least one of those closed meetings. The letter implied a previous discussion had dealt with him “not performing your job at a level which meets the board’s expectations and due to your unsatisfactory job performance.”

Additionally, the commissioners have “direct authority” over only three county employees in addition to the county attorney: county manager Bryan Hagood; the board’s clerk, Tory Frink; and the county’s tax administrator, Jeremy Akin.

It was in response to Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr.’s public records request from last week that the county’s personnel director provided the termination letter.

Absent from the materials which Hook provided to the newspaper, but potentially key to understanding the tension that Albright referred to, is the alleged age discrimination.

Apparently, sometime during the past few months, commissioners inquired about Albright’s future retirement, he says in an interview with the newspaper. [See separate story this edition.]

Albright takes that as an affront, but other sources have told the newspaper that the context of such a discussion arose from a concern and desire that Albright remain on the job, not that they were looking for, urging, or even hinting at, a date for his departure.

With 13 years experience as county attorney, Albright has a wide familiarity with the ongoing cases facing the county, as well as institutional knowledge about the history of past lawsuits and legal disputes.

The assistant county attorney, Ben Pierce, recently left the county when his wife took a job in Florida. While Pierce has been conducting some residual assignments remotely, there is otherwise no second lawyer currently present in the county’s main office.

Additional attorneys work for the department of social services in specialized work, mostly with child custody issues, but no one – other than Albright – handles most of the legal matters for the county.

Apparently at some point in the midst of the board’s earlier closed-door discussions, Albright retained his own legal counsel.

What is widely said to have floored the commissioners was when they received a communication from the law firm representing Albright while he was still on the county’s payroll, demanding some form of compensation for him, ostensibly for some form of age discrimination.

Sources have said that the commissioners believed strongly that the county attorney’s job was to defend them and the county from outside attorneys on a host of litigation fronts. They were consequently said to be uniformly dismayed and disappointed to face the possibility of a lawsuit on behalf of the very attorney they were counting on to defend them.

The Alamance News was unable to verify the amount of compensation sought by Albright’s attorney, but the various reports suggest hundreds of thousands, perhaps as much as half a million dollars.

Asked about whether his attorneys, had, in fact, communicated with his bosses on his behalf, and sought any form of a “settlement,” Albright demurred during an interview with the newspaper earlier this week, saying he did not want to get into details of his “strategy” or legal options.

The commissioners also are said to regard the allegation of “age discrimination” as a mere pretext for Albright to extract money from his then-employers.

As such, a consensus rapidly developed that Albright’s continued representation of the county was no longer tenable and that he must be replaced.

“They could no longer trust him,” was the summary conclusion that each commissioner is said to have reached.

Of particular irony to some observers has been the allegation that Paisley, who is 73 and still working as a private attorney, would have been a part of an age discrimination campaign against Albright, who is 64.

It is fairly well known, however, that Paisley and Albright have had run-ins dating back years, even prior to Paisley’s election to the board of commissioners last year.

The two locked horns, for instance, when Paisley was a board member of a now-defunct mental health agency whose assets were taken over by the county during Albright’s tenure as county attorney.

Commissioners apparently reached the conclusion that it was important to get rid of Albright, and bring in someone they could trust, as soon as possible.

The Alamance News was able to confirm that one of the county’s insurance policies – which governs cases of Public Entity Employment-Related Practices Liability, most likely the one on which the county would rely for addressing Albright’s potential future litigation – has a deductible, or cap, of $25,000. Thus, that amount might be the ceiling for out-of-pocket – or more precisely, out of taxpayer pockets – expenses that the county might incur.

Negotiating settlements in lawsuits against public agencies and elected officials is a role that is increasingly left to third-party insurance companies and their attorneys. Thus, the decision to settle – or even whether to settle – and for how much, might be largely determined by outside attorneys, rather than by the commissioners themselves or even their own county attorney.

Many times, those lawyers calculate how much time, effort, and legal expense would be incurred in challenging an action vs. simply paying it off at a reduced amount in the early stages.

Albright claims age discrimination as reason for dismissal:

Commissioners “fix” gaps in following state law by firing county attorney, again, this week:

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