Ada County Highway District Director Bruce Wong won a contract for his job from a commission set to change in the new year.
On Wednesday, the Ada County Highway District Commission voted 3-2 to approve a three-year employment contract for Wong. The deal includes a substantial payout if future commissioners choose to let him go. This comes weeks before one, possibly two, longtime commissioners will leave office after the November election.
The original contract proposed to increase Wong’s salary to $169,750, but commissioner Sara Baker moved to keep it at his current rate of $154,798.40 right before the vote. This salary, even without the increase, is higher than many of Ada County’s top elected officials, including Boise Mayor Lauren McLean and Ada County Sheriff Steve Bartlett.
If Wong is let go “without cause” by a new commission before his contract is up, he would receive a lump sum payment equivalent to his current salary, health benefits and contributions to his retirement plan for a year after his termination.
Business as usual?
Commission President Mary May said prior to the vote this contract was not meant to tie the hands of the next commission. She argued every commission deals with the decisions of previous groups of elected officials.
“This action today is with this body of commissioners as we are the ones who have given direction to Wong and we are the best ones to ascertain if that direction has been followed and met,” May said. “This is in no way meant to disenfranchise or ignore the fact that there will be one, maybe two, new commissioners in January.”
At the end of the year, Baker will leave the commission after not seeking reelection in November. Dave McKinney will replace her. Commissioner Rebecca Arnold lost her reelection bid by two votes in November to newcomer Alexis Pickering. Arnold planned to request a recount, but the outcome of that effort is not final.
Baker did not comment on the vote before she cast it in favor of the contract.
Arnold also voted for the contract, stating it was not something she proposed.
“While I didn’t initiate this process, I do have to agree it’s appropriate,” Arnold said. “It frankly wouldn’t follow precedent if we didn’t have a contract. All previous directors at the district did have contracts for their entire term.”
Protests from two commissioners
Commissioners Jim Hansen and Kent Goldthorpe voted against the contract, citing opposition to making a decision for the newly elected officials set to come in in early 2021. Hansen disputed Arnold’s claim of a contract. He said prior to the vote Wong worked at the pleasure of the commission without a contract since March 2017 and the previous director did not have a contract.
BoiseDev asked for details of Wong’s previous contracts after the November 18 meeting and an ACHD spokeswoman said a public records request would be required. The agency fulfilled the request on December 2.
According to the documents, Wong had an employment contract with ACHD from October 2014 through April 2017. Since this contract expired, he has been working at-will for the agency. This former contract also included a similar provision stating if he was let go without cause he would be paid a lump sum equivalent to a year’s salary.
Wong’s predecessor William Schweitzer had an employment contract from February 2000 through February 2007. Under the agreement, if Schweitzer was let go without cause after his first six months of employment or before his last six months of employment he would have been entitled to a lump sum payment equivalent to six months of his salary. If he was let go within the first six months or the last six months of his contract, he would not be entitled to the lump sum.
Hansen said they evaluated the director’s performance during the budget process, and it is unnecessary to try and put a contract in place now.
“My vote for the budget included a compensation increase for the director and many other employees that reflected their positive performance this year,” Hansen said. “If this was purely a personnel issue, it would have been brought up prior to our adoption of the budget.”
Goldthorpe, who appeared at the meeting only to vote on this specific item before going to another appointment, strongly disagreed with the contract.
“I don’t think an agreement like this is correct,” he said. “I think it’s just wrong, from purely a philosophical standpoint. I don’t think it’s right that this commission obligates future commissions.”