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3-2 vote sends county manager packing
Return in January still a possibility
Rhonda Poston OConnor
Rhonda Poston-O'Connor

With a salute and a smile, Forsyth County's manager left Thursday night after her bosses voted to fire her.

Rhonda Poston-O'Connor, who served in the top post just a couple weeks shy of a year, was fired in a 3-2 vote by the county commission.

Commissioners Linda Ledbetter, David Richard and Brian Tam voted in favor of the decision, with Chairman Charles Laughinghouse and Jim Harrell opposed.

Poston-O'Connor, the fourth person to hold the spot since 2004, will receive a nearly $157,000 severance package.

After the decision, she gathered her belongings and walked out of the commissioners' meeting room as members of the crowd applauded her.

Deputy County Manager Doug Derrer, a Hall County government retiree who joined the Forsyth staff in January, will serve as interim county manager until a replacement is found.

Poston-O'Connor said later she enjoyed the time she spent working for the county, which began in October 2005 when she was hired as assistant county manager.

She became interim county manager in April 2006 and served in that capacity until she was promoted last year.

She noted accomplishments during her tenure, including new fire stations and the north and south sheriff's office precincts.

"It's been great working here," she said. "I've met some of the most wonderful people in the world here and for that I'm glad."

Commissioners did not provide a specific reason during the meeting for terminating Poston-O'Connor's contract.

Before the vote, Harrell and Laughinghouse thanked O'Connor for her work. Harrell also offered encouragement in what he called a "dark moment."

"Be encouraged that [Derrer] is willing to take the helm and be assured that he has the experience and the ability to do a great job," Harrell said. "Also be encouraged that come January you will have a better and more professional board to work with."

The comments hinted at previous speculation that Poston-O'Connor could be brought back in some capacity, maybe even county manager, in early 2009.

Richard and Ledbetter, both of whom voted Thursday to fire her, are leaving their elected positions at the end of December.

Harrell and Laughinghouse could then possibly find a third vote to bring her back.

Richard, referring to a comment Laughinghouse made during the invocation at the beginning of the meeting, quipped, "I forgive you for you know not what you are doing."

Richard said Friday that the primary reason for Poston-O'Connor's termination was "failure to inform the board that she was giving us a budget that was out of balance by $5 million."

"We knew in April that we were going to be about $6 million down in revenues and they put some minor things in place to try to control some spending," Richard said.

"But again, they never told us about the $5 million that we also didn't have, so it wasn't $6 million at the time it was closer to $11 million."

He went on to say he thinks Poston-O'Connor has "completely fouled up the jail bond."

In November, voters will be asked to approve separate bond referendums to fund construction of a new jail, for $75 million, and sheriff's headquarters, listed at $16 million.

"That jail is too expensive for what we're getting and I don't think she was able to reign the sheriff in properly, which is her job," Richard said.

Like her termination, the commission split 3-2 on Sept. 20, 2007, when they promoted Poston-O'Connor from the interim county manager post. Richard and Tam voted against the measure.

Ledbetter, apparently the swing vote in Poston-O'Connor's employment, has said the dismissal is rooted in the recent suspicion that $5 million may have been transferred from reserves without the commission's authorization, which would have helped cover a $9.6 million revenue shortfall in the county's budget.

Chief Financial Officer Bill Thomas confirmed Friday that the $5 million was never moved.

According to County Attorney Ken Jarrard, the commission authorized Poston-O'Connor and Thomas to move it when they approved the county budget in August 2007.

Tam has accused Poston-O'Connor of withholding information. She was written up in March for "insubordinate actions" stemming from a disagreement with him.

That was her second reprimand. In spring 2007, she was disciplined for not telling the commission before a meeting that a commissioner's aide, whose contract the board had already decided to terminate, was going to resign.

The commission met in late August to fire Poston-O'Connor, but postponed its decision until Thursday.

The delay reportedly was to allow time to bring Derrer and other staff up to speed on matters.

Poston-O'Connor was promoted to county manager, a position that draws an annual salary of $130,000, in September 2007 after serving as interim county manager for about 17 months.

Provided that she was not fired for a felony or misdemeanor involving drug use or gross disregard for moral standards, her severance was to include an entire year's salary, either in one lump sum or monthly payments.

According to her contract, she could carry over up to 240 hours of compensatory time from year to year, any unused portion of which she could cash in at the end of her employment.