CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The communications director for incoming Secretary of State Mac Warner says 16 current employees will lose their jobs because the new administration needs to focus on its own vision, goals and efficiency standards.
The outgoing Secretary of State, Natalie Tennant, says the move means the office will actually lose significant expertise and experience.
That’s not how the new administration sees it.
“Secretary-elect Warner has a mandate to make the Secretary of State’s office more efficient and accountable to the clients – to the people who need the Secretary of State,” said Mike Queen, the incoming communications director for the office.
“Up to this point, it hasn’t worked as efficiently and the Secretary of State’s office hasn’t been as accountable to the people; otherwise Secretary of State Tennant would have been re- elected. This is never an easy process. He doesn’t take this lightly.”
The current Secretary of State’s office received written notice on Tuesday that 16 employees would not be retained by the incoming administration. There are also two unfilled positions that would continue to be unfilled. Warner plans to fill 14 of the positions. Tennant says the office is staffed at 51 employees.
“We believe we’ve identified up to 14 to replace those folks,” said Queen, who recently hosted a current events talk show on some West Virginia Radio Corp. stations. “There are two positions we don’t want to fill or don’t want to fill right away if we have to fill them at all. We need to make sure the staff is at a level that we can perform the duties we need to perform.”
Queen said all employees who wanted to stay with the Secretary of State’s office were able to participate in interviews with questions specifically relevant to their work.
“Everybody was interviewed,” Queen said. “We didn’t just go in and pick people. Everybody who wanted to stay was interviewed.
“There was a scenario developed. Everyone was asked the same questions in each division. We asked what direction we want to go in. Unfortunately, that led to the dismissal of those 16 employees.”
Tennant and Warner have a basic disagreement over whether the office is running like it should. Warner, a Republican businessman, points toward criticisms of inefficiency. Tennant, a Democrat with a background in television news before serving two terms as Secretary of State, touts achievement.
Queen said Warner has a goal of changing the status quo in areas like the Elections Division and the Business and Licensing Division. Queen said comments that Warner received leading up to the election — and the election result itself — showed that change is necessary in those areas.
“The Elections Division is something the county clerks have had great concern with for the last six or seven years under Secretary Tennant,” Queen said. “It just hasn’t worked well. So there was a set of questions and criteria. Same with Business and Licensing. We heard from a number of attorneys and accountants that the division was slow. The Secretary of States office is first stop for a business wanting to form.”
Tennant says the employees being let go have valuable knowledge that can’t be replaced easily. She said several were hired under previous Secretary of State administrations and have stayed on.
“Any elected official should have their vision, but they also need to be the type of leader where their vision can work with employees,” Tennant said. “I didn’t get rid of third of the employees. I only let three people go. I used the talents and the skills and professionalism and competence already here. That was what I promised employees my first day on the job.”
Tennant says the office has achieved goals of increased online presence and better transparency.
“I let the record speak for itself, but I also understand this is a political atmosphere. You can be political when you’re running a campaign, but when you’re governing you’ve got to govern.
“When you bring in 16 new employees, they’ve got to be trained. And training costs money. You’re not being efficient when you’re costing more money to train someone.”
One of those to lose employment is Layna Brown, the Elections Divisions manager, who has been with the office for 19 years. Tennant said Brown worked her way up through the office to that leadership position. “We saw that value she had.”
Another departing employee is Rose McCoy, a business and licensing specialist who has worked in state government for 50 years. “She’s worked for 9 secretaries of state,” Tennant said.
Others with longer tenures being let go include Tim Richards, business and licensing specialist, with 28 years in the office, head receptionist Nancy Harrison, 12 years; chief information officer Beth Ann Surber, 10 years; and legislative liaison Dave Nichols, eight years.
More who aren’t being retained include chief of staff Sheryl Webb; executive assistant Bradley Harris; chief counsel Ashley Summitt; elections specialists Tammy Roberts and Cristie Hamilton; business and licensing specialists Anna-Dean Mathewson and Jacob Kinder, public relations specialist Samuel Speciale, regional supervisor Shonette Kingston, and receptionist Christina Stowers.
Assistant counsel Tim Leach retired from state government at the end of 2016.