County commissioners took exception Monday to a column penned by Commissioner Jimmie T. Smith that suggested the county planning director lose her job over a proposed tree regulation in the Holder Industrial Park.
Commissioner Ron Kitchen Jr. said Smith’s column, which targets Land Development Director Joanna Coutu but not by name, violated a county ordinance intended to separate commissioners from overseeing anyone but the county administrator and attorney.
Kitchen said the column, printed in Sunday’s Chronicle, “creates the potential for a hostile workplace environment.”
Smith, according to his column, was upset that Coutu added a condition for a proposed industrial park, recommended by Duke Energy and county economic leaders. The condition calls for a buffer of trees and shrubs separating nearby residences from the industrial park property.
Smith also sent emails to County Administrator Randy Oliver that were critical of Coutu.
“...While I would not assume to suggest you either release or reassign her, I would not oppose it either and could suggest as much in the future,” Smith wrote to Oliver.
Smith’s column offered a similar view.
“If I had my way, we would either ask for the head of the land development division to resign or have that person moved to a position in the planning section that doesn’t have direct impact on our ability to grow much needed jobs,” he wrote.
And he said much the same thing directly in an email to Coutu:
“I've lost confidence in your leadership and while I would not suggest randy move you, I would not oppose it.”
Kitchen said Smith’s comments in the column were inappropriate in that Coutu works for the administrator, not the commissioners.
“To attack our employees in the media is reprehensible,” Kitchen said.
Kitchen asked that commissioners vocalize their support for Coutu. Instead, Commissioners Brian Coleman, Scott Carnahan and Chairman Jeff Kinnard said they would support the ordinance that prohibits commissioners from interfering with the staff.
Smith offered no thoughts during the discussion. Afterward, he said he did nothing wrong.
“I’ve been very open with my displeasure,” Smith said. “I think you should be transparent.”