Reading from prepared remarks, Washington County Commissioners President Jeff Cline (R) opened the Nov. 12 commissioner meeting with an announcement that would upend a county government already engulfed in political turmoil and deflated by a growing disdain for upper management.
“Effective immediately,” Cline read earnestly, “the Board of County Commissioners announced that Robert Slocum has resigned from employment from Washington County government.”
No further comment would be provided on Slocum’s sudden departure from a job he held less than three years, Cline stated, citing personnel restrictions.
For a number of county employees, Slocum’s untimely exit was mostly greeted with a sense of relief, a collective exhale that morale would soon be restored to a broken, dysfunctional operation, led by a rudderless leader operating outside of his depth.
“It’s a new day in Washington County,” one county department head shared with A Miner Detail who requested to speak on background. “As soon as our team heard that Slocum resigned, several of our employees were giving fist bumps and high fives to one another,” the department head said.
Mr. Slocum was appointed county administrator in March 2017 by a previous commissioner board that included former Washington County Commissioners John Barr (R) and LeRoy Myers Jr. (R); Commissioners Cline, Terry Baker (R) and Wayne Keefer (R) also sat on the board at the time.
An engineer by trade, Slocum’s ascendence into the county administrator role, succeeding longtime administrator Greg Murray, was the equivalent of “trying to put a square peg into a round hole,” another county department head told A Miner Detail who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Rob was never cut out for this job. He was a fine engineer, but he lacked leadership. He was in over his head,” another county employee shared.
Slocum did not respond to a request for comment.
When hired in March 2017, the all-male, five-member commissioner board cited Slocum’s familiarity with operations and his 15 years of county government as the reason behind his promotion.
Slocum was approved by a unanimous vote. Commissioners Baker and Keefer and former Commissioner Myers – a three-member voting bloc at the time – were instrumental in shepherding Slocum’s hiring.
Commissioners Cline and Barr were absent from the hiring discussions amid Slocum’s hiring. Myers was said to have led the process, with Baker and Keefer joining him. (Cline was ill at the time Slocum was hired, and Barr, also absent, was unavailable to comment.)
Washington County employees soon began expressing concern over Slocum’s management style – only three months into his term as county administrator.
Some employees were outraged over Slocum’s unenthusiastic support for the Fort Richie project in Cascade. Other employees, at the time, were concerned that Slocum was unnecessarily rearranging county priorities, hindering the downtown Hagerstown project.
In his first 100 days, Slocum essentially demoted the county’s chief financial officer – Deb Murray – at the time, who previously reported to the commissioners but was told to report directly to Slocum, a change that cast doubt on Slocum’s management competence.
Shortly after the sudden personnel change, employees claimed that Slocum’s disinterest in promptly investigating employee complaints was a key moment in the buildup to his years-later departure.
Mr. Slocum’s first year leading the county was one defined by tumult and suspicion.
Employees complained over Slocum’s decision to promote at least four staff members from the engineering department – a department Slocum once led – to higher-level positions without following county policies.
Slocum’s hand-picked employees were offered substantial salary increases and virtually no change in reporting responsibilities.
While it was mostly Slocum’s management style that concerned longtime county employees, his frequent outbursts and paranoia led to a sharp decline in employee morale, with a number of longtime county employees publicly questioning whether Slocum was temperamentally unfit for his role, county staffers shared with A Miner Detail.
“He [Slocum] is paranoid about county staffers leaking information to the press,” said a former public relations staffer.
Slocum was deeply skeptical of a single commissioner and a few county staffers who could have been filtering information to the press. He later ordered an investigation into employees whom he believed were leaking confidential information to local media.
Hovis used as a buffer
Shortly after the Board of Commissioners unanimously promoted Jim Hovis to the position of chief operating officer, in Dec. 2017, Slocum quickly sought to use Hovis – a former Maryland State Police investigator and 13-year county employee – as his buffer between staff, instructing Hovis to keep close tabs on department heads and other county staffers suspected by Slocum of leaking confidential county business to the press.
Hovis departed county government in February after at least two county employees filed grievances against him.
The county issued a news release on Hovis’ departure, reading, in part, “the Board of County Commissioners have ‘mutually and amicably agreed on Hovis’ separation from county employment.'”
Did Slocum resign – or was he fired?
Though his exit was reported as a resignation, a least three county staffers say that Mr. Slocum was effectively terminated by the commissioners in a 3-2 closed-session vote.
Slocum was given the opportunity to resign, however.
According to county staffers who overheard Commissioners Baker and Keefer discussing Slocum’s departure, three commissioners – Commissioners President Cline and Commissioners Randy Wanger (R) and Cort Meinelschmidt (R) – supported firing Slocum.
Baker and Keefer abstained
Mr. Baker relayed to a number of county staffers over previous months that he favored dismissing Slocum as county administrator because of Slocum’s county budget rollout as well as his support for property tax increases, an issue anathema to Baker’s conservative, Tea Party base.
“Slocum’s budget was one of the worst county budgets in recent history,” a county staffer close to Washington County Chief Financial Officer Sara Greaves explained to A Miner Detail.
“Commissioners Baker and Keefer complained about the budget, but they didn’t have the solutions to fix it, and it required Cline, Meinelschmidt and Wagner to jump in and do the right thing.”
But only days after Slocum’s resignation was effectuated, county staffers claim Baker told county employees that he did not vote in favor of firing Slocum.
County employees who spoke to A Miner Detail on the condition of anonymity referenced county union employees’ arbitration with the commissioner board, positing that Slocum intentionally misled commissioners over salaries and increases.
A formal outside salary study was conducted over a year ago, following an internal study.
Some county employees believe Slocum surreptitiously adjusted the study’s numbers – in effect, eliminating staff whom he felt were unworthy while upgrading employees who maintained close proximity to him, specifically former county Chief Operating Officer Jim Hovis, whose salary was increased – inexplicably, employees argued – by $8,000.
On Thursday, a county department head emailed A Miner Detail, writing, “Slocum ultimately failed to realize that the county’s policy decisions are made by the elected commissioners. He discovered that the county was not his personal playground, staffed with disposable servants. Now, it seems, Slocum expects to be rewarded with post-termination benefits, further demonstrating the arrogance that dominated his administration.”
Slocum’s “corrosive” management style – or lack thereof – contributed to his departure, employees say; though, he did have a few defenders, namely, Washington Couty Business Director Susan Keilholtz Small.
“Rob could always count on Susan to have his back. She was Rob’s number-one defender. She made it a habit to defend Rob’s bad decisions – but none of us understood why,” a county staffer shared.
Keilholtz Small did not respond to a request for comment.
After resigning, Slocum told Herald-Mail Media that he would like to return to engineering. He said he hopes to spend more time with his family.
County Attorney Kirk Downey was unanimously tapped by the commissioners to serve as the interim county administrator until a full-time replacement is found.
The county will soon launch a search to replace Slocum.