Originally updated Feb. 19, 2019, 12:44 p.m.
Documents released by the county last week show Human Resources Director Danielle Yarbrough, a 20-year county employee, was fired Feb. 8 after it became known she had received confidential information from a commissioner via email.
In a termination letter dated Feb. 8, County Manager David Headley explained why he fired Yarbrough, stating that though she had no control over receiving the documents, she violated a recently-signed confidentiality agreement by not taking steps to notify him upon receipt.
District 4 Commissioner Julie Hughes Nix, the commissioner who sent the emails, is facing a resolution of censure from the rest of the board during Thursday’s voting session.
According to the resolution, censure is the “appropriate form of reprimand for a commissioner acting out of order.”
The resolution states that Nix acted out of order when she sent emails to an employee on repeated occasions, despite the fact that that the communications were specifically marked confidential and attorney-client privileged.
“Despite this specific admonition, such communications were forwarded by Commissioner Nix in violation of the attorney-client privilege when such communications were concerning personnel issues about the very employee to whom she forwarded the communications, this employee was represented by an attorney, and this employee was taking positions adverse to Dawson County’s interests,” the resolution reads.
The resolution also notes that if Nix continues the practice of breaching attorney-client privilege and the executive session privilege, the board would be left with no choice but to take legal action against her.
Nix said Tuesday that she accepts responsibility for her actions.
“I made inadvertent mistakes and have already apologized to the board, and they wanted to take it before the citizens.” Nix said. “I apologize to the citizens and all of my supporters.”
Commission Chairman Billy Thurmond had no comment on Tuesday.
Previously, Headley had sent Yarbrough a formal review of her performance in the HR director role on Jan. 18, in which he consistently marked her performance as “below expectations” and “unsatisfactory,” particularly in regard to how she handled sensitive or confidential information.
“Discretion is not maintained and there are times that information makes its way to selected commissioners on sensitive personnel issues,” he wrote. “I have counselled Ms. Yarbrough and other senior staff members on these issues, and reminded her and them to follow appropriate channels of communication and the chain of command as required by county policy and by the county manager form of government in which we function.”
(In the county manager form of government, the commission fills a policy making role while the appointed manager is responsible for executive functions including personnel management.)
He also wrote that Yarbrough “needs to comply with county policy that prohibits disclosure of information without specific approval.”
Along with issuing his evaluation, Headley required Yarbrough and other members of the human resources department to sign a confidentiality agreement, which Yarbrough eventually signed Jan. 31 after consulting with a lawyer.
Yarbrough however refused to sign the evaluation, and sent Headley a response on Jan. 28 in which she said many of his statements were false and inaccurate. She asked him to provide examples of a time she had disclosed sensitive information, violated the chain of command or did not respect the county manager form of government, among other issues.
“You also mentioned that you have counselled me on discretion and the chain-of-command,” Yarbrough wrote. “That is completely false and has never occurred. I do not consider a blanket statement made at a senior staff meeting that ‘If you talk to a commissioner, make sure you tell me’ a form of counseling.”
She also said in her response that Headley’s evaluation read as a “personal attack on her character” and said she hoped he would “reconsider the harshness of the evaluation,” as well as questioned the timing of the review, which she said had been due in September.
According to the termination letter, Headley was reviewing Yarbrough’s emails to provide more information on the disputed claims made in her evaluation when he discovered that the commissioner, now identified as Nix, had sent Yarbrough confidential documents as well as communications marked “attorney-client privileged” concerning Yarbrough herself.
“While your receipt of such materials at any time would be disturbing, importantly, some of these private, confidential, privileged communications were received by you as recently as after you received your evaluation, provided your rebuttal and signed the Confidentiality Agreement,” he wrote.
He cited portions of the employee handbook in regards to “Acts of Dishonesty” and “Gross Insubordination” as sufficient grounds for her termination.
Headley marked in Yarbrough’s personnel file that she is not eligible for rehire at the county.
“It is an unfortunate situation, however, as this is still an ongoing personnel matter, we do not have any further comment at this time,” Headley said in a statement Tuesday.
Yarbrough’s personnel file also contains evaluations from former county managers and commissioners, all of which were favorable.
Yarbrough said Tuesday that she has sought legal counsel and appealed her termination.
Yarbrough had been employed by the county since 1999, when she became a 911 dispatcher for the sheriff’s office. A year later she was promoted to administrative assistant for then Maj. Kevin Tanner and was responsible for human resources and accounts payable for the sheriff.
After Tanner was named county manager in 2009, Yarbrough became his administrative assistant in that office. Yarbrough was appointed to the position of county clerk in December 2011 and continued to serve as executive assistant to county manager until she became head of human resources in 2014.
She turned over her clerk duties to Kristen Cloud in January 2018.