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County planning director fired
Chance had been suspended since May
Chance Jeff

Ending months of speculation, the Forsyth County commission voted 3-1 on Thursday to fire Jeff Chance, the county's embattled planning and zoning director.

Commissioner Patrick Bell opposed the measure and Commissioner Brian Tam was absent.

Chance, 44, had been on paid administrative leave since May 12 while the county completed an investigation into his management practices and computer use.

The county report found 12 violations of policies, including use of profanity, putting golf balls in the hallway on county time, and sending and receiving personal or inappropriate e-mails with staff members and his girlfriend.

The report was presented in late June. Commissioners had postponed the matter three times since July 1.

No public discussion of the issue took place during Thursday’s meeting.

Commission Chairman Charles Laughinghouse said only that the matter had gone on too long and it was time to "put it to rest."

After the meeting, Laughinghouse declined to elaborate, noting that the "documentation speaks for itself.”

Bell cast the lone vote against the firing, though he said Chance had committed some wrongdoing.

"Discipline was warranted, but I think that termination was on the harsh side," Bell said.

Chance attended the meeting, but left without commenting.

A 15-year employee of the county, he had led the department since 2003. His annual salary was $92,104.

Earlier this summer, Chance filed suit against the county, contending his rights as a whistleblower had been violated.

According to the suit, the investigation was a retaliatory action based on his report to officials that county Planning Commissioner Brant Meadows had allegedly threatened his job.

Eric Chofnas, Chance's attorney, said he had attempted to reach a settlement prior to the Thursday meeting, but the county's attorney did not respond.

He took that "as a message" that Chance would likely be fired at the Thursday meeting.

"I regret that they have rebuffed our efforts to negotiate a settlement and have taken this action," Chofnas said. "Obviously, they were determined that the only result that they were willing to accept was a termination."

Forsyth County's attorney for the case, Tim Buckley, could not be reached Friday.

Laughinghouse said he was not aware of a possible settlement proposed by Chance and his attorney.

Bell said the chairman had denied his request to sit down with all involved parties and try to resolve the matter.

Chance will go forth with the lawsuit since the board decided not to settle, said Chofnas, adding that the termination would only impact the suit by increasing the damages.

The county's response to Chance's complaint is expected to be submitted by Friday.

"[The lawsuit] is likely to drag on for years and be very expensive," Chofnas said.

As a civil service employee, Chance also has the right to have his termination reviewed by the county's civil service board.

Neither Chance nor his attorney have indicated whether he will pursue that route.

The situation unfolded in April when Meadows reportedly disagreed with an administrative decision Chance had made on a zoning issue.

After a conversation between the two, Meadows requested Chance's county e-mails, which he obtained through the state open records act.

What Meadows found and turned over to county officials sparked the investigation into the planning director's work conduct.

Chance's lawsuit alleges several threats during his interaction with Meadows, including that Meadows said he would "destroy" the planing director's career.

In part due to those allegations, Bell at a meeting earlier this month suggested to county commissioners that they hold a hearing for Meadows to get to the bottom of the issue.

He said an employee in the engineering department also complained of an uncomfortable discussion when Meadows disagreed with a departmental decision.

Meadows, whose term on the planning commission will end in December, has denied the allegations that he threatened anyone.

With just three of five commissioners present at that meeting, the matter was postponed until all could attend. The item is on the agenda for Tuesday's work session.

Bell has said the investigation into Chance's work behavior was a "political vendetta" brought on by Meadows.

While Bell said he's been accused of turning the matter into a political one, he believes the whole affair has been presented that way.

"It's turned, unfortunately, into a political mess," he said. "It should've been handled differently."