By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer
In a move that appears to be uncommon in the North Carolina mental health care field, the board of the Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health last week approved a five-year contract for organization director Tom McDevitt.
Smoky Mountain Center is the local management entity in charge of overseeing mental health care in 15 western counties — more counties than any other such entity in the state.
The contract guarantees McDevitt a $164,892 per year salary, full employee benefits package and car until Sept. 1, 2013, when he plans to retire.
A request for salary information of the directors of the 24 state local management entities gathered responses from 15. Of those, McDevitt was one of only two that has a contract and is one of the three highest paid directors in the state.
The contract did not sit well with everyone, and divided the board in a 16 to 8 vote.
The eight who voted against the contract were from the original seven counties overseen by the Smoky Mountain local management entity. The rest of the board members are from counties to the north and east which have since merged with the organization. Three counties — Caldwell, Alexander and McDowell — only came on board July 1. The new additions now form a majority on the board, replacing that held by the seven original counties.
Some questioned why an emergency meeting was necessary since McDevitt had two years remaining on his contract.
Board members who voted against the contract have recently butted heads with McDevitt over accusations that he has abused his leadership position. They were quick to say, however, that their opposition to the contract wasn’t a personal attack on the organization’s director — rather, they called a contract unnecessary overall.
“It doesn’t matter who was in that position, but a five-year contract just seemed excessive at this time when a lot of things are unsettled in the mental health field,” said Ronnie Beale, a Macon County commissioner. Beale and McDevitt have been at odds since McDevitt threatened to pull Smoky Mountain out of a Macon County Mental Health Task Force. In a letter, McDevitt accused Beale of attacking the organization for perceived shortcomings.
Haywood County Commissioner Mary Ann Enloe was also opposed to the five-year contract.
“I think employment more or less stands for itself,” she said. “I don’t know what the purpose of a contract would be. Usually if you realize that the situation is not a good match, you don’t throw people out on the street.”
Problems between McDevitt and his board reached a fever pitch in June when McDevitt abruptly announced his resignation at a board meeting after an hour-long closed session argument over the contract and a new set of bylaws. He later retracted his announcement.
As a result of that incident, board members strived to make sure Smoky Mountain Center was protected in the contract if McDevitt was to resign his post.
“What if you got mad and quit and just went home? What kind of protection does Smoky have?” asked Swain County Commissioner Glenn Jones.
Under the contract, if McDevitt leaves before the five years is up, he’s entitled to a three-year buyout. But McDevitt can’t receive the buyout if his departure is connected to a failure to give his best effort in Smoky’s interest. Board members initially wanted that statement clarified, but board attorney Jay Coward said that wasn’t necessary. Any board decision to terminate McDevitt would be up for interpretation and would probably be contested in a court of law anyway, regardless of whether there was more clarification in the contract.
McDevitt took issue with the vagueness of the interpretation of what it meant to fail to act in the Smoky Center’s best interest.
“I think it’s so vague and ambiguous that anything I don’t do in the satisfaction of the board gives them reason to terminate my employment,” he said. He said an independent party, like a court of law, should be in charge of evaluating whether he acted in the best interest of the organization.
Ironically, McDevitt came under fire at the last board meeting for the same thing he was protesting. At that time, McDevitt attempted to amend the bylaws by including a phrase allowing for the termination of a board member at any time if they expressed negativity or criticism toward Smoky Mountain Center. The board protested and the phrase was removed.
During the meeting to approve the contract, board members raised questions about some of McDevitt’s practices. Smoky Mountain Center’s nepotism policy was a topic of concern. McDevitt’s daughter is employed by the organization, and some questioned whether she received special treatment.
McDevitt defended her employment, saying her position in medical record disposal was temporary and would be finished within eight weeks. He said the nepotism policy had become somewhat lax because of the difficulty of finding qualified employees, and that far from receiving special treatment, his daughter is the lowest paid employee in the agency.
The fact that the daughter’s position was temporary was news to Enloe.
“Never had it been mentioned to me before that it was a temporary job that would be ending,” she said.
Enloe asked about the involvement of McDevitt’s wife, who is a Realtor, in the sale of property owned by the Smoky Mountain Center.
“When Smoky sells or buys property, what real estate firm or agent handles that?” she asked.
McDevitt responded that the organization doesn’t own any property. Enloe then asked whether McDevitt’s wife was in any way involved in property transactions for the organization.
McDevitt said his wife is a Realtor with Main Street Realty, in Waynesville, though not a broker, and that “she’s been involved in assisting the foundation and purchasing properties.” The Evergreen Foundation is the private arm of the Smoky Mountain Center that owns the organization’s assets. McDevitt said that Enloe’s question was “answered in the affirmative at this point.”
Thursday, July 31, 2008
By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer
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