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With five aldermen present Thursday morning, the Fayetteville Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted unanimously to terminate Jim Lee from his position as city administrator.
The vote came after a lengthy discussion of various points included in Lee’s contract which expired last October, what it means to be an “at will” employee of the city, and aspects of the city’s personnel policy. How the situation was handled was also discussed as officials defended their actions under Tennessee’s public meetings or sunshine law.
Generally, though, board members described what they termed as consistent behavior that to them warranted termination.
The meeting opened with Mayor John Ed Underwood asking City Attorney Johnny Hill to address questions raised regarding whether there had been a violation of Tennessee’s public meetings law relative to a letter signed by five aldermen and given to the city administrator Monday of last week. Noting that the law prohibits two or more officials from privately deliberating outside a public meeting, except in instances allowed under the law, Hill said he had not found where two or more members of the City Board had deliberated outside of a strategic planning meeting held the preceding Saturday at Henry Horton State Park near Chapel Hill.
At that meeting, covered by The Times, there was no discussion of Lee’s position, though the mayor later said during Thursday’s meeting that the only individual he had discussed the matter with was the city attorney, and that at the strategic planning meeting, he had handed a packet out to aldermen.
“The perception that we may have violated the Sunshine Law is very incorrect,” said Underwood. “My job is to listen to all the aldermen … but the only person that knew what the letter contained at the time was the city attorney. I wrote the letter, or the resignation request, and the letter of the special called meeting request, because that’s the way it’s supposed to be done.
“None of the aldermen, none of you, knew anything about it,” he continued, adding that he had asked the city attorney a couple of weeks earlier to poll board members so that he could determine whether he was alone in his opinion. “When we got to the strategic planning meeting Saturday morning, I had this packet that I still have in my possession. On the cover was a letter, saying sign this if you agree, initial it if you do not.”
When the packet was handed back to Underwood, he said it was signed by five of the board members, all but Vice Mayor Gwen Shelton.
“Jim was not my choice at the time we hired him, I’ve been pretty adamant about that, and I do believe it is time for new leadership,” said Shelton, noting she did not sign the letter because she believed the mayor had called other aldermen and not her and going on to say that the board should work together as a unit.
Hill also addressed what it means under Tennessee law to be an “at will” employee, basically saying such an employee has no guarantee of employment.
Prior to Thursday’s meeting, Lee gave board members a letter in which he asked to be allowed to remain in his position until November of 2014, at which time he would retire. He also asked for a severance package similar to the terms of his original contract. If that were to be agreeable, he would sign a release.
In discussion Thursday, board members at times questioned Lee, his previous behavior on various matters, and contended that as an at will employee, he did not have a right to ask for a settlement.
“Just like the preachers in your church, you know more about those preachers than I do because you’re on the inside,” said Alderman Marty Pepper. “We’re sitting here, we’re on the inside, believe you me we know what’s going on.”
Alderman Michael Whisenant referred to Lee’s letter, adding saying it “is consistent with [Lee’s] sense of entitlement.” He went on to refer to the city administrator’s employment with the city, describing it as a “generous” arrangement, and he added, “I do believe we need to make a change.”
Lee also contended that he should fall under the city’s personnel policies and be afforded various steps before being dismissed, such as oral and written reprimands.
“Not true, not true, not true,” said Alderman Danny Bryant, stating emphatically that Lee should easily understand that he is exempt from the personnel policy because of his status as city administrator.
Bryant went on to make the motion that the board terminate Lee’s employment immediately, allowing him to only be compensated for any time, such as vacation time, that he may have coming. Pepper seconded the motion, which was approved by the board unanimously. The only board member not present was Alderman Dorothy Small, who had to be out due to work.
The board then moved to hold a called meeting this Thursday, March 7, following their 8 a.m. work session. During that meeting, this will discuss an interim city administrator and a timetable for pursuing a more permanent solution.
“Thank you for allowing me to serve the past four years as your city administrator,” Lee wrote in a statement to The Times. “I am proud of the advancements Fayetteville has made with the help from the department heads, board of mayor and aldermen (BMA) and city workers. These successes are the result of ‘team efforts’ and working together toward a common goal.
“I wish to thank the past and present mayors and aldermen who have guided me during my tenure,” he added. “I would also like to thank the many people who have welcomed me into the city and shown me support.
“As I look to the future, I plan to travel with my wife, Sara, volunteer at church, perform some ‘handyman’ projects on our children’s houses and spend more time with our grandchildren.
“It has been my honor to serve the City of Fayetteville.”