Everyone knows there’s something rotten in Denmark, but the new question is this: Is there something rotten in Guilford County government?
On Wednesday, August 24, Guilford County held a hastily called meeting of the Internal Audit Committee, at which the commissioners on that committee voted to recommend that the Board of Commissioners give Internal Audit “unrestricted access” to all county records, employees and county property, and the committee went into a closed session to consult with Chief Deputy County Attorney Matt Mason to “hear reports concerning investigation of potential criminal conduct.”
The Internal Audit Committee meeting was attended by Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips, Commissioner Kay Cashion, who’s chairman of the Internal Audit Committee, County Manager Marty Lawing, Deputy County Manager Clarence Grier, Internal Audit Director Deborah Alston, Clerk to the Board Robin Keller and Mason, who was filling in for Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne who was out of town.
Commissioner Alan Branson attended as well but had to leave before the committee went into closed session.
At the meeting, Lawing said of the Internal Audit department, “They’ve initiated quite a few audits and we’ve asked them to look into some things and they have done so in a timely manner and given us a report.”
During the meeting, after remarks by Alston about the general nature of the department and its practices, Phillips made the motion to go into closed session and stated it was “for the purpose of prevention of disclosure of information that’s privileged or confidential under the Personal Privacy Act, to consult with the county’s attorney, to consider the performance of county employees and to hear reports concerning investigation of potential criminal conduct.”
The manner in which the committee meeting was called was highly unusual. Normally, when there’s a committee meeting for internal audit, or any other committee, there’s a good amount of notice – at least a week or more. However, in this case, Guilford County sent out public notice of the meeting and then held it as soon as permissible by the state’s public meetings laws.
By law, the county must provide 48 hours’ notice (or declare the meeting an “emergency meeting”), and, in this case, Guilford County provided 49.5 hours notice for the Wednesday afternoon meeting that was held in the county manager’s conference room in the Old Guilford County Court House.
Also, the meeting notice sent out on Monday, August 22 suggests haste; it contains an obvious typo, and the county clerk’s office rarely has any mistakes in its meeting announcements, which are very short. That notice states, “The purpose of the meeting is to provide an update on County Internal Audit reviews and convene into closed session to discuss a [sic] confidential information and to consult with the County Attorney.”
Internal Audit has found issues before and talked about them as well as about corrective action taken. However, as far as anyone remembers and currently available county records show, the Internal Audit Committee had never gone into closed session before. Prior to the August 24 meeting, the Internal Audit Committee had only met twice since Jan. 1, 2014, with both meetings for very routine business.
Phillips said later after the meeting, “Obviously, I can’t speak to the content of the closed session.”
He added that the focus of the conversation was on “DSS and other departments.”
Mason also said multiple issues were discussed but he would not elaborate.
Cashion said that, since it was a closed session, she couldn’t disclose anything about the discussion.
When asked specifically about the term “potential criminal conduct,” Cashion said she certainly recognizes that phrase includes a word that sparks interest.
“It is a word that gets your attention,” Cashion said.
The closed session of the Internal Audit Committee started at 4:30 p.m. and ended at 5:47. At that time, the committee came back into session for two minutes and agreed to hold another Internal Audit Committee meeting, though the date of that meeting has not yet been set.
County officials will not even reveal where the motion to go into closed session originated. Phillips read the motion; however, he said it was given to him by Mason.
Mason said he was responsible for the “wording” and when asked the origin of the content of the motion, he stated, “I’m not comfortable discussing that.”
Keller also declined to say. She did say that, whenever there’s a closed session to be called, she confers with the county attorney to confirm that the stated reason for the closed session matches the discussion that will be had, and she said that in this case it did.
At the meeting, Alston explained the powers in the Internal Audit charter that the commissioners were being asked to approve.
“It authorizes unrestricted access to records, personnel and physical properties – all these things we need in order to perform our job,” Alston said.
That motion must be approved by the Board of Commissioners before it goes into effect.
Guilford County social services has been the center of numerous widespread problems and was an unmitigated mess under former Director Robert Williams.
The problems in that department were so widespread that Williams was forced to resign in early 2014 and the Guilford County Board of Commissioners disbanded the county’s Board of Social Services and merged the Department of Social Services with the Guilford County Department of Public Health. The commissioners gave themselves direct control and oversight of the new Guilford County Health and Human Services Department.
Current Guilford County Social Services Director Heather Skeens, who was charged with cleaning up the mess and has been working to get the department back on track, has cleared up backlogs and made improvements in many of the benchmarks used to measure that department’s performance.
The monumental scandal from DSS was an embarrassment not only in Guilford County, but it also caused then NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos – in an extremely rare act – to publically and harshly criticize the Guilford County Department of Social Services.
It’s not clear what other departments were discussed during by the Internal Audit Committee once it was behind closed doors.
One day after the committee met in closed session, Phillips had high praise for Alston, who he said has been doing excellent work as the head of the Internal Audit department.
“I have been very impressed with Deborah,” Phillips said. “I’ve been impressed with the way she goes about assessing the county’s procedures, and with her priorities.”
Earlier in her career, Alston worked with the City of Greensboro where she’s credited with uncovering some large concerns for that local government.
“Her experience really shines through,” Phillips said.
Phillips added that, when Alston communicates, not only with the audit committee but also with the Board of Commissioners, she gives the commissioners and other county officials an “elevated level of confidence.”
He said the commissioners and county staff need to diligently look into areas of concern as they arise.
“You can’t let your eye off the ball,” Phillips said.
The chairman also said the new approval of the charter recommended by the committee will give Alston’s department “whatever resources she needs” to do the investigative work that her office is required to do to get to the bottom of situations.
During the August 24 meeting, Phillips said he was frankly surprised that no board had granted Internal Audit those powers already.
Alston wrote in an email that the adoption of the charter for Internal Audit by the Board of Commissioners will create more clarity when her department undergoes peer review, and that it will also help clarify for county directors and employees that they can feel comfortable handing over requested documents to Internal Audit. She said the department has had access to county records in the past and does now, but this will help clear up any misconceptions about what the department in entitled to.
Alston wrote in an email, “While the department has been operating under this charter, as you know, anything that has been officially approved has more acceptance. Because of the nature of what we do and with some information being highly sensitive, we do get questions now and then from staff as to whether they can turn documents over to us for our review. Having an official document will give departments the approval they need to feel comfortable in providing those documents upon request by Internal Audit staff.”
Like Phillips, Cashion also went out of her way to offer praise for Alston after the August 24 meeting. Like Phillips, Cashion said she is very comfortable knowing that Alston is heading up the county’s Internal Audit department. Cashion said that all of her impressions of Alston and her work had been highly positive, and Cashion said that was more true than ever after the August 24 committee meeting.