Bid to fire county administrator stalls

No vote taken, but chief administrator's performance to be discussed March 28

Putnam County Administrator Rick Leary survived one termination attempt, but further discussion – and a potential vote – looms in less than two weeks. 

Near the end of Tuesday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting, Commissioner Buddy Goddard motioned for Leary to be fired. Larry Harvey – the board’s chairman, a position that rarely makes or seconds motions – seconded the motion “for discussion.”

Goddard said he and a number of constituents were unhappy with Leary’s service to the county, especially given the 14-month operational audit the state performed on the county after numerous residents alleged Leary and the county committed corruption and fraud. 

“Based on many factors, including our recent audit, our attempted sale of the landfill, the mistrust and the lack of confidence expressed by the people of Putnam County, I want to make a motion that we start the process to replace our county administrator,” Goddard said, causing a stunned silence throughout the commission chambers. 

Commissioners Chip Laibl and Bill Pickens opposed terminating Leary during Tuesday’s meeting, saying the topic of Leary’s termination was brought up too suddenly for the board to make a sound decision.

Commissioner Tommy Stilwell was absent.

“Commissioner Goddard, this came out of thin air,” Laibl said. “I’ve got to question you on this.”

But Goddard said he had sufficient reason – dating back to before he was elected in November – to call for Leary’s termination.

Local residents aren’t happy with and don’t trust Leary, Goddard said, and it’s for those reasons Leary should go. 

“This hasn’t come out of thin air,” Goddard responded. “It has been a concern. I heard it the whole time I was running for and before I ran for county commission. There is a severe lack of confidence. The basic people of Putnam County are not pleased with a lot of things that our county administrator has done.”

Goddard praised Leary for the good things he’s done but said his employment with the county was an issue the board needs to review. 

Leary, maintaining his stoic disposition, did not speak during the discussion, and he offered little after the meeting. 

“At this time, I would have to decline to comment,” he said. 

With only four commissioners in attendance, the board appeared evenly split on whether Leary should stay or leave.

Stilwell has been absent from three of the five general board meetings this year. If he’s is absent when and if the board votes to fire Leary, a deadlocked vote would result in Leary keeping his job. 

“The county has an ordinance from 1990 … and that requires no less than three votes (to terminate the administrator),” County Attorney Stacey Manning said. 

“If there is a 3-2 vote to terminate Leary, he could request a hearing to retain his position.” 

Leary being terminated at the end of the month could mean chaos for the county during a time when it’s formulating its budget, which has become a contentious topic. 

Deputy County Administrator Stacie Poppell could pull double duty as the interim administrator and chief budgeting officer, all the while the county would be engaged in the arduous task of hiring a new administrator. 

Manning said he has no idea how Leary’s potential termination would affect the budgeting season or how long it would take to hire Leary’s replacement, but the next few months could be difficult. 

“This is a shot in the dark, but this is probably a six-month process,” Manning said of hiring a new administrator. “This is just a guess. I could be wrong. Any time you have an upheaval in your top administration, it could have a negative impact.”

Pickens suggested the board push the topic to its March 28 meeting so commissioners could gauge public opinions, have a more thorough discussion and “make an educated decision of such magnitude.”

“I feel that something with this importance to the county should at least have been an agenda item (before a motion was made),” Pickens said. “I feel that – in respect to Mr. Leary and to myself and the commission and to the citizens of Putnam County – that we should have time to research this, ask questions and get input from the public before we make a decision today. 

“If you’re asking for a decision today, I know what my decision would be. It would be no.”

Goddard and Harvey withdrew their motion and second and agreed to table the discussion until March 28.

Harvey – who since his appointment in 2014 has frequently butted heads with Leary and even spoke during the state Joint Audit Legislative Committee meeting where residents requested the audit – expressed remorse about such a matter being discussed so publicly. 

“I know we have to have these discussions out in public,” Harvey said. “Unfortunately, things like this probably should be kept private, but they’re not.”

Palatka Daily News

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