Update: This blog was updated from its original form to include comments from Lowell Siler and Michael Page.
It's been more than a month since Durham County Commissioners voted unanimously to request a probe into actions by the board of the county social services board, and the service of the agency's former director, Gerri Robinson. (Read the letter asking for the investigation, PDF)
The commissioners in September asked for an investigation by the state attorney general into matters surrounding Robinson's firing in July, and the subsequent appointment of an interim director, Gail Perry. Perry joined the DSS Board last summer. At her first meeting, the board voted to fire Robinson. During the same meeting, Perry was appointed as the new interim director to replace Robinson.
But with the primary interest of the attorney general being criminal matters, the office chose not to delve into allegations such as ethics violations, a large part of what commissioners had wanted an investigator to dig into. The county also tapped a retired judge, but he turned the county down, Commissioner Joe Bowser said Wednesday at a meeting of the DSS Board.
Bowser said he would prefer to end the search for an investigator and drop the issue.
"I think what we have here is just a whole bunch of hot air," Bowser said. "And when individuals look at it, they're not going to be bothered with it. ... As far as I'm concerned, there's really nothing to be investigated. It was just a matter of trying to quiet those down who were doing the talking."
Much of that "hot air" from September targeted Bowser. Supporters of Robinson said Bower led an unscrupulous effort to can Robinson, despite her receiving positive employee reviews from the DSS Board. Others questioned whether Perry joined the DSS Board and consented to Robinson's firing with the foreknowledge she could be named Robinson's replacement. In subsequent media reports, Michael Page, chairman of the Durham commissioners, also accused Bowser of trying to get Robinson to employ his friend. These accusations were among the many items to be investigated, commissioners agreed.
Bowser said he would talk to his fellow commissioners to see if they all would agree dropping the matter.
"It appears that we're moving forward quite nicely," Bowser told the DSS Board. "We just don't need that interruption and distraction at this point in time."
Reached by phone later Wednesday, Page said the board would have to consider whether it would be willing to cease the investigation, but that he believes the ethics questions should be probed.
"The community deserves to know whether there's legitimacy to those questions," Page said. "The community deserves transparency from our government." Page said he was scheduled to meet with County Attorney Lowell Siler to discuss what other individuals could lead the investigation. Siler confirmed Wednesday that he had previously asked a retired judge from another county to take up the investigation, but that person declined. Siler has been out of the office for several weeks on family leave and just returned this week, he said, so he hasn't had an opportunity to approach other possible candidates to investigate.
In other matters Wednesday, Perry updated board members on an ethical issue regarding temporary employees at the social services department, which she corrected, she said. She recently discovered that an employee had hired, supervised and signed the timesheets for a relative who was working as a temporary employee, she told the board.
The employee has been disciplined, Perry said. She said she also worked with county attorneys to craft a policy statement in regards to working with relatives that has been distributed to the entire staff.