Dozens of citizens packed into the Smithfield Town Council chambers Monday night to show their support for former town manager Paul Sabiston who was fired from his job on August 4th.
Several people asked the council to reverse their 4-to-3 vote and consider rehiring Sabiston at their September meeting. However, Mayor John Lampe told those who had gathered that the council had already made their decision and he would not place the item on the agenda next month.
During a public comments section, local attorney Mike Reese said Sabiston was one of the best town managers Smithfield has ever had. “In three years he has become part of the fabric of Smithfield.” Reese said Sabiston ended the town’s payroll scandal, refinanced loans to save taxpayers money, held down healthcare costs, worked through the ElectriCities deal, and saw the police department obtain higher accreditation. Reese said Sabiston’s reward was being dismissed without warning, cause or justification. Reese said citizens are owed an explanation. He added Smithfield would not have the reputation as a “very bad place for a town manager to be.”
“Even if they do everything the council asks them, they may be fired,” Reese said in a statement to the town board and Mayor.
Mayor Lampe responded to the comments by saying the council deserves credit for the good things that have happened in Smithfield, pointing out that the council runs the town not the manager. Lampe said the council has the right to terminate the manager and the decision to fire Sabiston had been in the making for several months. Lampe said there had been “consistent friction” between Sabiston and some board members.
In the last 30 years, Smithfield has had 7 town managers, not including interims.
Resident Dennis Williams spoke saying the council has made their decision. He asks the audience to come together with the council to help address problems in Smithfield that need to be resolved. “Now is not the time to divide the council.”
“If someone makes a decision to remove a town manager and remove the livelihood of a man and his family, they should have a good reason to do so and not be afraid to share it,” Jimmy Baggett said. Baggett then shared Bible scripture from 1 Samuel 3.
Former Parks and Recreation Director Tim Johnson, who recently retired after 30 years with the Town asked council members if they were 100 percent sure if they acted fairly and justly. Johnson asked the council to reconsider the firing.
Following a closed session, the council voted unanimously appoint Jim Freeman as interim town manager effective next week. Until Freeman can begin work, Finance Director Greg Siler was appointed the interim until August 18th.
Freeman served as town manager in Elizabethtown from 1980 to 2000, as city manager in Roxboro from 2000 to 2004, and in Havelock from 2005 to 2013. Freeman said he has retired from being a full-time manager but was available to help towns like Smithfield until they could find a permanent replacement. Freeman plans to work 24 hours per week.
The council delayed action Monday night on appointing a subcommittee to interview consultants to help find Smithfield’s next town manager.