The Forsyth County Civil Service Board has 30 days to determine whether a planning official’s dismissal was justified or an overreaction based more on politics than fact.
Jeff Chance’s appeal is in the hands of the three-member panel, which heard closing arguments in his hearing Thursday.
The board will have much testimony to review from the proceedings, which began Nov. 16 and spanned parts of three weeks.
From the outset, Chance has contended the decision to fire him as planning director in August was motivated not by facts but by a planning commissioner’s political aspirations.
The county has maintained the termination was the result of Chance’s failure to comply with and enforce county policies in the department he had led for seven years.
Eric Chofnas, Chance’s attorney, challenged the credibility of an investigative report that was used as a basis for the decision to terminate his client.
“In my opening, I said that these conclusions were either wrong, unfairly distorted or in some cases, just plain crazy,” Chofnas said Thursday.
“I would submit that all of these findings in this report, the general findings that Jeff was a bad manager, are just a little bit of all three of those.”
The report found that Chance used offensive language at work and at least one employee felt uncomfortable as a result.
Chofnas argued that Forsyth County Personnel Services Director Pat Carson ignored interviews with employees who said “any profanity that went on in this department was occasional, was joking, was not abusive.”
The attorney also said that the report made a sexual harassment allegation against Chance that was pulled “out of thin air.”
He said a favoritism charge against Chance was based solely on the statements of an employee who had a motive to damage him because he had been laid off in 2008.
Chofnas noted that in his 2009 employee evaluation, Chance scored 4.2 points out of five.
“Somehow he only turned into a bad manager when he became a political target,” Chofnas said.
The attorney reminded the board of testimony that Planning Commissioner Brant Meadows had threatened Chance’s job in an effort to force a public hearing on a conditional use permit.
The permit was sought in April by United Recycling for property on Friendship Circle.
Witnesses testified that Meadows wanted to use the hearing to bolster his bid for the District 1 county commission post, a campaign that was ultimately unsuccessful.
Testimony also alleged that Meadows was angry when Chance decided United didn’t need to apply for a permit because one already existed on the property.
If United didn’t need to apply for the permit, there would be no hearing.
Chance testified that Meadows threatened to have him fired if he didn’t change his mind.
He said Commission Chairman Charles Laughinghouse told him on April 23 to reverse his decision and go along with Meadows. Chance said he complied out of fear of losing his job.
Chofnas asked the board to void his client’s termination and not discipline him further regarding the matter.
Attorney Tim Buckley spoke on the county’s behalf.
“We had the burden of proving Mr. Chance’s termination was based on a legitimate and nondiscriminatory reasons and explanations consistent with the county’s policies,” Buckley said. “We do not have the burden of proving to you that anything feels good, that anybody’s nice.”
Buckley reminded the board that County Manager Doug Derrer sent a directive to department heads in June prohibiting the personal use of county equipment and that Chance talked to Derrer about the instructions.
“There’s been voluminous evidence of profanity back and forth between Jeff Chance and numerous people,” Buckley said.
He also drew from Chance’s statements, taken during the county’s investigation, about allowing one of his subordinates to circulate personal e-mails at work.
“If for some reason it made that girl feel better about coming to work that day, if she were able to send the boss some funky e-mails, I was of a mind to let her do that for a while,” Buckley said, quoting Chance.
“I know the difference between right and wrong and what you tell me to do and not to do. Doug, I just want to give you a little clarity of what I might have been thinking.”
Buckley argued that firing Chance was the appropriate measure for the county.
“If the leader, if the general, is not leading his troops properly, then he needs to be removed,” Buckley said. “If he doesn’t understand that, then he doesn’t need to be leading the charge for that department. He doesn’t need to be influencing those around him ... after June 2009, he knew this was a serious policy.”
Buckley said Chance “repeatedly, continually and admittedly violated established county policy.”
Prior to the closing arguments, Derrer was called back to the stand.
Derrer, who testified early in the hearing, said the e-mails he had received from an anonymous tipster contained some allegations that could not be proven.
They also contended Chance was putting golf balls at work and showed favoritism to certain employees, claims the investigation later supported.
Derrer said he did not call law enforcement or take the messages seriously enough to launch a probe based solely on the anonymous complaint.
Terry Smith, vice-chairman of the Civil Service Board, noted that the allegations appeared to have made their way into the county’s investigation conducted in May.
The probe was launched after an open records request turned up questionable e-mails of a sexual and racial nature found on Chance’s work account.
After receiving the anonymous e-mails, Derrer said he would occasionally walk through Chance’s department to monitor its operations.
He said he never witnessed any of the allegations.