Butch Church insists to those who ask that he’s only one-fifth of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors.
No single board members can make a decision, and anything the board decides requires a majority, he says.
But the dismissal of a board clerk who dissatisfied Church and other dealings between Church and staff members illuminate the board chairman’s influence over the county’s day-to-day business. Church’s interactions inside the county administration building also highlight the growth of his power since Clay Goodman became county administrator in 2009 and since Church took the supervisors’ chairmanship in 2010.
“He has a way of getting his way,” Supervisor Richard Flora said of Church. “Some things that Butch has done have been good for the county. But sometimes his methodology takes away from that goodness.”
Church now seeks a record fourth term as supervisor in the county’s sprawling Catawba District.
“No chairman can dictate, dominate, intimidate. They’re one board member,” Church said in an interview Friday. “These things are totally opposite what Butch Church is about. I’m not about power. I am an individual who grew up poor, has nothing, and I treat everybody with utmost respect.”
In the chairman’s seat
The independent has campaigned on his ability to connect with others and his honesty. He has reminded voters of his support for the Green Ridge Recreation Center, government transparency, public safety, schools and libraries, including the new Masons Cove Elementary School and under-construction Glenvar branch library in his district.
Church faces independent Carter Turner and Republican David Drake on Nov. 8. While both candidates have taken issue with past votes Church has made, they have not criticized Church’s leadership style publicly.
At board meetings, the chairman finalizes the meeting agendas, is careful to thank each person recognized by board resolution and calls on his fellow board members as “the lady from Cave Spring” or “the gentleman from” each district, a tradition of the board.
“He’s very fair to everybody and treats everybody with respect who comes to the board with opinions, even if he doesn’t agree with them,” Supervisor Charlotte Moore said.
Until a wind ordinance vote this fall, Church and fellow independents Moore and Ed Elswick had pushed through a series of controversial votes. The trio approved a Community Development Authority to handle business infrastructure at South Peak, the now-undeveloped hillside at the Electric Road and U.S. 220 intersection in South County. The three also disrupted a practice of rotating the board chair position each year among members to hand it to Church twice instead.
Inside the county administration center on Bernard Drive, staff members notice Church’s appearance at the office sometimes multiple times a week, and holding regular closed-door meetings with Goodman, several have said.
His position on the board, which he has held since January 2000, is part time. The 64-year-old former insurance agent first joined the board as a Republican but, after a falling out with party leaders in his second term, declared himself independent.
John Chambliss, a retired assistant county manager, remembers Church as being more involved in daily county business “than an average supervisor might be.” Chambliss served as acting county administrator for a year after the 2008 retirement of Elmer Hodge.
At times, Church’s “passion” on certain issues could be interpreted in multiple ways, Chambliss said. Some people might think he was pushing while others would think he was serving his constituents.
Board games about their clerk
In 2005, Church attempted to wedge the board into more daily county government work by asking the supervisors to change county policy about the board clerk position.
The clerk serves “at the pleasure of” the board of supervisors, largely as a record-keeper, and works under the direction of the county administrator, according to county policy.
Church wanted to shift the clerk to work under board members’ directions and not the county administrator’s, supervisors’ meeting minutes show. He hoped for better communication, he said.
Three supervisors, including Flora, Mike Altizer and former Supervisor Joe McNamara voted to prevent the board from considering the idea. They believed that the change could expose the clerk to board members’ politics and would denigrate the clerk’s work.
In June 2009, Goodman named Becky Meador board clerk. She had worked in other county departments since 2006 as a treasurer’s clerk and an administrative assistant in planning.
Church protested hours after she was hired.
“It is my recommendation not to offer the position to Ms. Meador,” Church wrote to Goodman. “We have discussed this at length. A new direction for our Board is just around the corner.” He had wanted another applicant as board clerk, he said.
Fourteen months later, in August 2010, Meador was gone.
Repeatedly, Meador told Goodman about her differences with Church, she said in a recent interview.
“I had no choice but to leave,” Meador said last week. “I was not allowed to do my job. I was told [by Goodman] I was not receptive enough to his [Church's] needs.”
And Church’s issues with the clerk, whom at one time he called “the Meador problem,” are documented through more than 14 months of emails obtained by The Roanoke Times through a Freedom of Information Act request to the county.
“If she had done her job adequately, she would still be there no matter what I think about this,” Church said Friday. “We get to a situation where she is just running rampant. I did what any manager would do.”
Meador had asked for expensive new computer software to help her, too, supervisors Moore and Church said. Moore said that showed her that the clerk was overwhelmed with the job.
When asked about the dispute with Church, Meador first declined to speak about the matter. She later changed her mind because she believed Church had violated her confidentiality by discussing some details of the incident with a reporter.
The more than 1,500 emails obtained by the newspaper offer snapshots of the friction between the board chairman and the clerk. “There’s a logical reason behind every single one” of the emails, Church said Friday.
Events before the dismissal
In April 2010, Church lost the county-paid Internet connection at his house, so he wrote to staff members to express his anger, the emails show.
“They tell me that my account was suspended because the county DID NOT pay my account!!!!!!” he wrote. “Becky [Meador], check this out for accuracy and I want Written detailed proof of what happened.”
The problem was the Internet provider’s, which led to a meeting with a handful of Verizon workers, county staff members and Church, Meador said.
In May 2010, Church emailed Meador letting her know that he was unhappy she had waited several weeks to forward a letter addressed to him. She responded that she was following procedures used by former clerks to handle some letters without alerting the chairman because so much of the county correspondence is addressed to that person.
“No matter how well I explain our procedure, he makes it seem like we’re always doing something wrong,” Meador wrote to Goodman about Church. “I cannot follow the rules if I never know what they are.”
Goodman replied that her response was “appropriate,” according to the emails.
In June 2010, Church asked Goodman to tell county employees that a discussion about board agendas at a staff meeting was not accurate nor authorized by the chairman. Meador and county staff said they had discussed not answering questions about agenda items before Church had approved them.
“I’m not sure that you realize the situation that Becky is placing the chairman in when she does the things that seem to come in bunches lately,” Church wrote to Goodman.
“Looking at this in the reverse order, I would not want you the administrator placed in these same situations,” Church continued in his June 4, 2010, email. “The tail has been wagging the dog lately … and no solution seems to be in sight.”
Church declined in an Oct.19 interview to elaborate on the incident, saying it was a personnel matter. Church at times said he couldn’t comment and at other times and in a later interview offered information on his contact with Meador.
Then, Meador noticed Church’s phone bills. He had called or received seven evening calls from the home of Debbie Jacks, Meador’s deputy at the time and now board clerk.
Typically, a deputy board clerk had little interaction with supervisors other than forwarding them messages from constituents and completing clerical tasks. A regular duty of the board clerk was to pay county supervisors’ cellphone bills, Meador said.
Church spoke with Jacks for almost 70 minutes after 8:30 p.m. on a Monday night in April 2010, according to Church’s Verizon cellphone bills, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. He also spoke with Jacks for 92 minutes, starting about 7:30 p.m. on May 11, 2010.
The phone calls to Jacks were nothing outside of ordinary business, Church said, and they didn’t discuss Meador’s performance.
Meador showed the bills to Goodman, who told her to take them to the county attorney, Meador said. She suspected the board chairman and deputy clerk had been discussing her, and she had hoped her superiors would recognize an inappropriate relationship.
“When she goes on her own to pull a phone bill – you’ll have to ask her why she pulled it – that was it for me,” Church said in an interview at the county administration office Thursday.
“Every time I tried to defend myself to him, he told me I didn’t know my place, I did not respect authority, and did I not know who he was,” Meador said of Church. Church says he doesn’t address people that way.
In August 2010, Church instructed county staff to remove Meador for some of her clerk duties. Jacks assumed her duties.
“I want to be crystal clear about this, I don’t want Becky handling anything for me … period,” he wrote in an email. “Becky is to understand without question that anything and everything regarding me is to be immediately turned over for Debbie [Jacks] for handling … no exceptions. I want it stopped … immediately.”
Meador still had four other supervisors to serve, Church said. The county declined last week to share items from her personnel file, including evaluations.
By this time, Meador’s stress at work gave her migraines, she said, so Goodman allowed her administrative leave. Meador then retained an attorney, she said.
When the board of supervisors met in closed session, board members agreed by consensus to end Meador’s employment with the county, they said. In a later agreement, the board finalized her settlement and agreed to pay her until the end of the year, according to board members and an email from the county attorney.
The county paid the former clerk $22,400, before tax deductions, with the expectation she would not file a lawsuit or claim, according to Meador and documents that show county payments made to her. The checks to her, paid every two weeks until January, were similar in amount to what she earned as an employee.
Meador, 45, declined to share the settlement agreement she signed with the county because she didn’t know if it would break a confidentiality portion of it, she said.
County Attorney Paul Mahoney, and Goodman said they would not discuss personnel information that would violate a former employee’s privacy. The money she received wasn’t called severance pay, Mahoney added.
Church last week said the board had “no dissent” on ending Meador’s employment.
But Supervisors Altizer and Flora said they disagreed with Church, Moore and Elswick on the decision.
“I asked in closed session, did she do anything to rise to the level of termination,” Altizer said. The answer was no, he said.
Flora at first didn’t support the payments to Meador “not because she didn’t deserve it, but because of the way it was handled” by the county, he said. “In my opinion, she had no alternative but to leave.”
Church said Friday he and Moore did not agree to the post-employment payments because of Meador’s poor performance. It’s unclear how Meador received payments if three of five board members disapproved of them.
Of the Meador incident, Church said he has done nothing wrong.
In an interview last week, he said that an article about it now seems to be an attempt to swing the election and asked the two staff members in the room, Goodman and Mahoney, to agree with him. They did.
(Oct. 23, 2011)
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