A retired town manager will oversee Smithfield while the Town Council seeks a full-time replacement for Paul Sabiston.
During a specially-called meeting on Monday, the council agreed to hire Jim Freeman as interim town manager. Freeman starts work Tuesday, and Finance Director Greg Siler will manage the town without extra pay in the intervening week.
The move came a week after the council voted 4-3 to fire Sabiston without cause, which triggered a severance clause in his contract worth roughly $50,000. On Monday, a crowd of more than 100 filled Smithfield Town Hall, mostly in support Sabiston and in search of a reason why the council fired him. Sabiston had served Smithfield since April 2012.
Freeman comes to Smithfield with more than 30 years’ experience managing towns in North Carolina. A graduate of Appalachian State University, Freeman spent three years as a town planner before 1980, when he took a job managing Elizabethtown. Freeman held that post until 2000, when he left to become city manager of Roxboro, which had about 8,900 residents at the time.
Freeman held that job until 2004, when a newly-elected mayor and commissioners voted to fire him, he said.
“That comes with the territory, you might say, as a city manager,” he said. “We understand that.”
In 2005, Freeman took a job managing Havelock – a city of about 21,000 located between New Bern and Morehead City. He retired from there in March 2013.
Since ending his career, Freeman has worked as an interim manager for Havelock, River Bend and Swansboro. Smithfield’s charter requires the town to have a manager, Freeman said, and he made it clear that he simply planned “to keep the boat afloat” while the council sought Sabiston’s replacement.
“I don’t want a full-time job; I don’t want the job here,” he said. “But we do try to help out communities during the transitionary period.”
Freeman and his wife live in Troutman, where they are building a house on Lake Norman. In order to continue collecting retirement benefits, Freeman will work only 24 hours per week in Smithfield.
Questions from council
The N.C. League of Municipalities suggested Freeman to Smithfield as an interim manager, and Mayor John Lampe first met with him the afternoon of the meeting.
After Freeman introduced himself Monday night, Councilman Emery Ashley said he felt like he was being asked to make a decision on Freeman without enough information.
“I sort of feel like I’ve been put on the spot, quite frankly,” Ashley said. “I just met Jim 12 minutes ago; we shook hands in the hallway.”
After some discussion about how to proceed, Lampe suggested the council go into closed session to interview Freeman in private. Under state law, town councils may discuss personnel matters behind closed doors, but all votes must take place in open session.
The council spent 80 minutes in a backroom with Freeman and then voted unanimously to approve his appointment. Councilmen Andy Moore and Marlon Lee were not present for the vote. Moore missed the meeting because he had a previously-scheduled family trip, town spokesman Tim Kerigan said. Lee showed up for the start of the meeting, but left after a few minutes without saying anything.
Town Attorney Bob Spence did not have time to write a formal contract before Monday’s meeting. Spence said he and Lampe would use the week before Freeman begins work to negotiate one.
In an interview with the Herald, Freeman said it took him three hours to drive from Troutman to Smithfield on Monday. That’s too long to commute, he said, and he planned to negotiate for Smithfield to furnish him with a place to spend the night during the week.