Monday, January 13, 2020

Lawsuit filed by former Durham County employee reveals potential cooperation with members of the Board of County Commissioners

As Democratic candidates for the Durham Board of County Commissioners gear up for the upcoming primary, the deposition of Marqueta Welton, in her lawsuit against Durham County, raises questions regarding a strategy between Welton and members of the board to oust Durham County Manager Wendell Davis.

Welton, in a case that cost Durham County $304,311 to defend, alleges Wendall Davis demoted her from her position as Deputy County Manager in retaliation for competing to become Durham County Manager. Welton’s deposition offers circumstantial evidence that her case against Davis was a political weapon to force his termination.

Matt Leerberg, the attorney representing Durham County, entered into evidence an email placed in Welton’s personal AOL account. The email from Wendall Davis was addressed to Commissioners and could only be received by a member of the Board of County Commissioners. Welton forwarded the email, dated April 14, 2016, to herself with the original sender deleted. The subject of the email involved organizational realignment.

“I can’t explain to you how an email from Mr. Davis to the Commissioners wound up in my exchange unless it was sent to me by someone,” Welton said.

“Did Wendy Jacobs send it to you,” Leerberg asked.

“I don’t know,” Welton said.

In the county’s realignment plan, Davis selected Deborah Craig-Ray, Gayle Harris, Jodi Miller, Jay Gibson and Claudia Hager as General Managers. The plan, implemented in April of 2016, shifted Welton into the role of Economic Development Officer. Welton alleges not being named a General Manager was an act of retaliation, a concern shared by Michael Page, a member of the Board of County Commissioners during realignment.

“I was speaking to him, I had to talk to him about an economic development matter, and he said he didn’t know why Wendell Davis was doing this to me, and that business people in the community were asking him about it, and that Wendell was going to have to explain this to the business community,” Welton said.

Leerberg entered into evidence notes from a September 7, 2016 conversation between Welton and her counselor involving dropping the lawsuit.

“Marqueta is hopeful that new Board will sit in December and may toss or not support Wendell,” the counselor’s notes state.

“But it’s true that as of September 2016, you were holding out hope that maybe the election would change things and your fortunes would be reversed, right,” Leerberg asked.

“Yes,” Welton said.

“You were hoping that a new slate of County Commissioners would come in and…”

“I was actually hoping that the old slate would have done the right thing, but then after the election, I hoped that the new slate would,” Welton said.

The County realignment plan was placed for approval on the Board of County Commissioner’s Monday, April 11, 2016 consent agenda. In his deposition, Davis said the plan was placed on the agenda as a formality.

“They had all been briefed about it. And Ms. Welton obviously had some angst and consternation about the reorganization and up until this point of course had done an in-run,” Davis said.

The item was removed from the agenda after board members indicated reorganization is within the purview of the County Manager. Welton resigned from the county shortly before the new slate of Commissioners were installed.

In his deposition, Davis says Welton wasn’t named a General Manager because the five chosen had a greater skill set and better attitude.

“If she will be truthful with you, she will tell you that what I said to her verbatim was you’re second in command. I expect you to step up and lead in your role,” said Davis. “But throughout the course of the better part of a year, she was not interested in doing that.”

Welton appealed the dismissal of her claim of retaliation by the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.

“Welton fails to identify any evidence suggesting that her protected conduct during the pendency of her demotion caused her to receive an even worse reassignment or an even lower salary,” the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled. “Thus, because Welton’s grievance simply had no bearing on the earlier decision to demote her, the district court properly awarded summary judgment to the County.”

The question before voters involves the potential politicization of Welton’s case against Davis. If Welton was being used as a pawn to terminate Davis, or in negotiating his contract extension, the cost of members of the Board of County Commissioner collaborating with Welton is $304,311.

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