JEFFERSON-Ashe County Commissioner Gary Roark was named the county’s new maintenance supervisor this week by Ashe County Manager Sam Yearick.
Roark, who has served on the five member board since 2010, started on Tuesday, March 7. Yearick said Roark will be tasked with maintaining all county properties and managing the six employee department. He’ll earn a salary of $47,622 per year, and will work the same hours as other county maintenance staff.
When asked about his new role on Tuesday, Roark said, “There’s a job that needs doing and I’m going to do it.”
Yearick said Roark will fill the role held by former County Maintenance Supervisor Barry Woodie, who retired toward the end of 2016.
“My thinking is that I just hired one of the best contractors in Ashe County for forty-something-thousand dollars per year,” Yearick said. “And I think that’s a heck of a deal and he’s going to do a great job.”
A brewing conflict?
When news broke in February that a sitting county commissioner had applied for the open position, reaction from commissioners was mixed.
Commissioner Larry Rhodes criticized the move as creating a potential conflict of interest. Commissioner Paula Perry, however, said she’d researched the idea with the North Carolina School of Government and said no laws or procedures would prohibit a commissioner from becoming a county employee.
“Personally I have a real concern that any commissioner, myself included, could perform as both an elected official and county employee,” Commissioner Larry Rhodes said Feb. 24.
Rhodes worried at the time that the relationship between Yearick and Roark could become blurred. Yearick serves at the pleasure of the board of commissioners, but county department heads answer to Yearick, Rhodes said.
“My thinking on it, it would be tough for that commissioner to be both a boss and employee at the same time,” Rhodes said. “You’d be wearing two hats, in essence, and that could be a problem.”
Yearick said he’d thought long and hard about the decision to hire Roark, but said he had no concerns about working with Roark on a day-to-day basis. Yearick also said he doesn’t believe the fact that he’ll be working with Roark more closely than other commissioners will give Roark special access or knowledge.
“I did agonize over this call,” Yearick said. “And yes, he’s one of my bosses. Just one. But he’s going to be here, doing a job and doing it right. And really, if things are working well within a department I really don’t have that much day-to-day contact with them. I expect things will run well in maintenance.”
A full slate
The decision to hire Roark, for Yearick, was made when considering exactly how much work will be involved in maintaining county properties in coming years.
The Eller property, which currently houses a portion of AppHealthCare’s operations, will need significant attention to keep it functional, Yearick said. Water damage has led to significant rot in portions of its roof and walls, a problem that will only get worse unless the county takes action to correct the issues, he said.
“This is something that we should have addressed long ago, and I’ve asked maintenance for a plan to deal with it in the past,” Yearick said. “But Gary’s contracting experience will be a big plus for us in dealing with this.”
Yearick also pointed out various problems throughout the county courthouse complex, everything from cracked steps to weather sealing issues that allow water to slowly chip away at the courthouse’s exterior. A plan will also have to be created to deal with Family Central, which will now fall under the county maintenance department’s control.
“We’ve got six folks in that department, including Gary, and we’re going to have to figure out how to get the most out of that department,” Yearick said. “The laundry list is long.”
Whether he was a sitting commissioner or not, Yearick said Roark’s long contracting and military experience simply made him the best candidate for the job.
“You can hear a lot of stuff about Gary, but the one thing you’ll always hear is that he’s one of the best builders in this county,” Yearick said. “At the end of the day it’s my job to do what’s best for all of Ashe County. That’s means doing what’s right, and what I felt was right was to pick the best person for this job. He had the knowledge, skills and abilities we needed right now.”
No quid pro quo
Yearick also dismissed the idea that the fact Roark has been a vocal Yearick supporter in the past had anything to do with Roark’s hiring.
Roark was among the five member board that unanimously voted to hire Yearick in late 2013. In a 3-2 vote in October of last year, Roark also sided in favor of extending Yearick’s employment contract and increasing his severance from one to two years in the event a future board decides to terminate Yearick’s employment.
Roark was also a vocal opponent of a recent plan to allow county department heads to anonymously rate Yearick’s performance.
“I’m a straight shooter and he likes me because of the job I’ve done,” Yearick said. “We’ve been able to keep the tax rate low and still get everything done. As far as his hiring, again, he was the best person for the job.”
Yearick allowed that the hiring of Roark may ultimately backfire on the county manager.
“The question as to whether this is a good thing for me – I mean, can he vote on me in the future,” Yearick said. “What can and can’t he vote on? That’s an open question but I’m going to leave that up to the commissioners to work out the mechanics of how that’s supposed to work.”
Yearick said Roark’s hiring also posed no legal issues, though he said he had not looked to other counties around the state to see if other commissioners held posts as county employees.
“I checked with (Ashe County Attorney John Kilby) but I didn’t really check to see if it’s been done elsewhere,” Yearick said. “Ultimately the question is not how it looks, but the question is what kind of employee you’re going to get. I wouldn’t have hired him if I didn’t have full confidence in his abilities.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058.