The town council voted 4-3 Tuesday to fire Town Manager Paul Sabiston.
The move came after the council spent half an hour in closed session to discuss Sabiston’s annual performance review. Councilman Perry Harris made the motion, which lingered for several seconds before receiving a second from Councilman Marlon Lee.
No one thing drove the vote; it’s just time for the town to move in another direction, Harris said.
“It’s a very difficult situation,” he said. “It’s not easy to do. We just think that we can do better.”
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Smithfield will have to pay Sabiston for breaking his contract “without cause.” Harris said he believes Sabiston is entitled to 50 percent of one year’s salary, or about $50,000.
The responsibility of identifying a candidate to become the interim town manager will fall to Mayor John Lampe, Harris said.
Councilmen Charles Williams and Travis Scott joined Harris and Lee in voting to fire Sabiston. The opposing votes came from Councilmen Andy Moore, Emery Ashley and Roger Wood.
Sabiston could not be reached for comment.
Smithfield hired Sabiston in April 2012 in the wake of the pay-raise scandal that cost former manager Eric Williams the same job. Before coming to Smithfield, Sabiston served as interim town manager of Boiling Spring Lakes in Brunswick County. Before that, he managed Roanoke Rapids.
About the same time last year, Harris said, Sabiston survived another council vote calling for his ouster. That motion came in closed session, and Harris declined to disclose how close it came to passing.
Ashley said he was disappointed by the council’s decision to fire Sabiston. He has improved Smithfield’s finances in his time as manager, Ashley said, and made the town a better place.
“I can’t think of one thing that he has not done that he has been asked to do,” Ashley said. “Look at where Smithfield has gone in his tenure; that speaks for itself.”
In contrast, Harris attributed the gains the town has made since 2012 to its elected officials.
“We have made a lot of progress here in Smithfield, but I think the council has been a big part of it,” he said.
Moore shared Ashley’s disappointment, along with his feelings that Sabiston had done everything asked of him by the council. Sabiston reorganized the town’s departments, he said, and he settled the lawsuit with former manager Williams as quickly as possible.
“It’s a sad day for Smithfield,” Moore said. “We definitely had a manager that was leading us in the right direction.”
Above all, Moore said, Sabiston improved Smithfield’s financial position. Under Sabiston’s watch, the town’s savings increased from about 1 percent of its annual budget to about 40 percent, Moore said. The council played a role in shoring up the town’s finances, he said, but only Sabiston worked on the issue as a full-time job.
Despite the disagreement, Moore said there were no hard feelings on the council.
“We’re just going to regroup, and we’re going to move forward,” he said. “That’s all we can do.”
The council is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Monday at Town Hall to name an interim manager, most likely finance chief Greg Siler.