The search for the next Durham County manager was down to two finalists, when one of them turned to the other and suggested she drop out, a federal lawsuit contends.
Wendell Davis and Marqueta Welton were heading back to the airport together after their final interviews in Washington, D.C., when Davis asked Welton to withdraw “because he understood that she had been a reluctant applicant,” the lawsuit filed recently by Welton states.
Initially Welton, then a deputy county manager, refused, but she later reluctantly withdrew her name “to preserve county unity,” it states.
“(Davis) was appointed and immediately retaliated against her for challenging him by publicly humiliating her, demoting her to a low-level position, cutting her pay in half and requiring her to perform onerous tasks intended to overwhelm her,” according to the lawsuit filed March 23 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.
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“This is a case about an exemplary, well-respected woman who made her way as a leader to the top echelons of Durham County government, then had the temerity to challenge a man for the top position of county manager,” the lawsuit states.
Davis declined to comment on the lawsuit, which was filed against him, the Durham County Board of Commissioners and Human Resources Director Kathy Everett-Perry.
Davis worked as a deputy manager for 12 years until he became a vice chancellor at N.C. Central University. He worked for NCCU for three years before he was appointed county manager in April 2014.
Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs also declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims the defendants violated Welton’s First and 14th Amendment rights and a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion. It also claims fraud, defamation and infliction of emotional distress.
Welton left the county in December after more than 11 years. Under the strain of the retaliation and the demotion, Welton took medical leave in September, the lawsuit states.
“Welton was compelled to resign at the end of her approved leave, as her medical providers advised her that returning to work at Durham County would cause further harm to her health,” the lawsuit states.
In June, commissioners approved a new contract for Davis that no longer included “retaliation against employees for their exercise of lawful rights,” as a reason he could be fired for cause.
Davis said he had the language removed because is wasn’t standard language found in a manager’s contract.
Jacobs said she had concerns about that and other changes in Davis’ contract, which the commissioners were asked to vote on after getting it only the night before.
Jacobs was told the contract language was based on City Manager Tom Bonfield’s contract, and the county attorney assured her the contract would still cover retaliation and other situations, she said.
Welton started as director of Human Resources in December 2005. She was promoted to deputy county manager by then County Manager Mike Ruffin in June 2011. Ruffin retired in January 2014.
“She was just a really good employee,” Ruffin said Wednesday.
Davis treated Welton with hostility, the lawsuit states, and interacted with her “sporadically and formally,” and often canceled meetings. He prevented her from participating on a board that other employees were involved in and sought to discipline her without cause, the lawsuit states.
In April 2016, Davis notified Welton he was moving her to a newly created position of economic development officer under a county employee reorganization. Her $172,214 salary was cut in half.
He also asked her to work in the Criminal Justice Resource Center building, “in which primary activities included drug testing, electronic monitoring, re-entry training and probation services,” the lawsuit states.