January 31, 2013
There's such a thing as going out with a whimper, but this is ridiculous.
After being with Guilford County
government for 41 years, and being county manager for the last four, Guilford County
Manager Brenda Jones Fox exited with no fanfare – or even any public acknowledgment by anyone that she had worked for the county.
Usually, when a department head steps down – especially a county manager – there are a lot of public goodbyes at meetings, and there are plenty of complimentary words about a job well done from commissioners and coworkers.
But there was none of that for Fox's retirement.
Each month, Guilford County
has a meeting of department heads, and the January meeting would have been the one when Fox could have said her goodbyes to department directors – however, Fox mysteriously cancelled that meeting.
Then, on Thursday, Jan. 17, the commissioners held their last board meeting before Fox's departure, and, at that meeting, not a single commissioner gave Fox a fond farewell or even so much as noted the fact that it was Fox's final board meeting after working for Guilford County
for over 40 years.
And, when it came time at the end of that meeting for comments from the manager, Fox told the commissioners she had nothing to say.
Also, every time a department head leaves, there's a large going away party – often in the foyer of the second floor of the Old Guilford County
Court House, usually with coffee, brunch and desserts.
However, in Fox's case, nothing was planned.
When one long-time county employee was asked if it was unusual for a departing manager or director not to have a party, she said, "It's strange; it's weird; it's bizarre."
Two weeks ago, one administrative assistant did put together a small "surprise party" for Fox. It was held in the tiny manager's conference room on second floor of the Old Court House.
When one employee was asked to describe the event, she said: "It was lovely. The Costco cake was delicious. Unfortunately, the punch was non-alcoholic."
The departure of Fox is a key moment in what many hope will be an eventual return to sane, open and above-board county government.
If Fox had retired in the middle of 2010, she would have left Guilford County
government after four decades as a highly respected county manager. She was widely regarded as an excellent finance director before she was named manager in 2009.
However, starting in September 2010, a continuous series of questionable, controversial, highly irresponsible – and perhaps even worse – moves came to be the dominant theme of Fox's career.
The first clear public indication that something was terribly wrong in Fox's administration came on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010, when The Rhinoceros Times reported that Fox had secretly created a high-paying "construction czar" position, which by all indications she intended to fill with her long-time friend and political ally, former Commissioner Steve Arnold.
The strange, unpublicized job description seemed written specifically for Arnold, and Arnold said he was qualified for the job and was interested in taking it.
Arnold, who had served as a commissioner for two decades, was unemployed after the construction company he owned filed for bankruptcy. Arnold was denied the right to declare personal bankruptcy by a judge who found Arnold had been fraudulent in his dealings with the court.
When the heat from an outraged public got to be too much, Arnold announced he would not seek the construction czar job with the county. A couple of days after Arnold pulled out, Fox eliminated the newly created position.
That incident got the questions about Fox rolling. Why was Fox creating a high-paying administrative job at a time when the county was cutting jobs left and right? And why did she create a new very powerful position in Guilford County
government without informing the Board of Commissioners?
If Arnold had gotten the job, he and Fox would have held sway over county real estate deals worth many millions.
Right on the heels of that scandal, Fox was at the center of an even bigger one, when, on Dec. 2, 2010, The Rhinoceros Times reported that Fox had, earlier that year, signed Guilford County
into a secret contract that gave an unknown High Point real estate broker exclusive rights to locate property for purchase by the county. Guilford County
has an entire department that handles property acquisition.
Fox's story is that Dian Brigman, a High Point real estate agent who Fox had never met before and knew nothing about, walked in off the street on a cold call and got an exclusive contract that allowed Brigman, now deceased, a 5 percent commission on every building or piece of property the county bought, whether Brigman played any role in finding it or not.
Fox never informed David Grantham, the county's property management director at the time, of the secret deal she signed with Brigman, nor did Fox tell the commissioners – many of whom only learned of the contract when they read about it in the Dec. 2, 2010 Rhino Times.
Brigman didn't have any history or expertise in acquiring commercial real estate or in working with governments – but she did just happen to be Arnold's friend and former employee.
Since the contract called for Brigman to get a 5 percent commission on all of the county's real estate deals, and the county was embarking on a 10-year capital improvement plan worth roughly $1 billion in property purchases and renovations, this deal could have been worth tens of millions of dollars if it hadn't been discovered and killed.
It was highly suspicious that a cold-calling real estate broker could get a meeting with Fox in the first place. Some high-ranking local government officials have been unable to get a return phone call from Fox, and the same goes for representatives of Moses Cone Health System, which is the largest private sector employer in Guilford County
and the City of Greensboro. Three years ago, high-ranking Cone officials said they couldn't get Fox to return their phone calls to negotiate a very important contract that covered health care for thousands of indigent county residents.
Yet, supposedly, a cold-calling unknown real estate agent walking in off the street got a meeting with Fox and convinced the manager to sign away all of the county's real estate acquisition rights in a secret deal.
Brigman's exclusive contract even stated that she could bring completed, "turnkey" buildings to the county – which meant Brigman could have also been paid a percentage on any curtains, furnishings, paint jobs or anything else the county spent on new county buildings.
In 2010, Fox pushed forward for the county to purchase one building for use by Emergency Services that Brigman had "found."
County officials had actually found the location months before Brigman came on the scene, and Fox and other county officials had toured the building at that time.
However, the commissioners, facing an outraged community, refused to purchase the building and pay Brigman the roughly $250,000 in commission she stood to make on that one deal alone. The board also voted to nullify the real estate contract....continued on page 2