Terri Ferguson Smith
Unexpected by many, Meridian's Civil Service Commission went ahead with business on Tuesday, despite the ongoing controversy over whether four of the commissioners will remain on board and who has the authority to remove them.
All five commissioners were present for the meeting, as were about 100 onlookers.
On Feb. 4, Mayor Percy Bland served notice of removal to commissioners John Watts, chairman; Robert Stockton, Carol Smith and John House.
Commissioner Frederick Liddell was not given a notice of removal. He was appointed by Bland and confirmed by the City Council on Jan. 21. Gloria Kirby, Civil Service secretary, was suspended with pay on that same day.
Watts asked commission attorney, Henry Palmer, to explain why they were going ahead with the meeting. Palmer read aloud a copy of a notice of removal, then said the commissioners are still able to do their jobs. He noted that an attorney general's opinion is clear on the matter.
"Until a hearing is held, until that time, you are the civil service commission," Palmer said. "You have not been removed."
Bland, who was not present for the meeting, has said that the removals have to do with a violation of the open meetings law and a matter dealing with a complaint in connection with testing violations for positions with the city.
The mayor's timing of the removals is curious, according to attorney Bill Ready Jr. and comes, he said, after months of delays by the city's administration in getting requested information to Ready and one of his clients, former Meridian Police Department Det. Don Hopkins.
"I think the mayor is doing what he is doing to keep from coming out in these open hearings, what's been going on — the facts surrounding Detective Hopkins' termination and the termination of Capt. Dean Harper," Ready said.
Harper's termination is also the subject of a federal lawsuit. There are other termination and discipline hearings that will likely be delayed if commissioners have to be replaced.
"This new administration has thumbed their nose at the hard workings of this civil service commission," Ready said.
Hopkins was fired from the Meridian Police Department in August, following a shooting in which a suspect was injured in July. He had been with the city 18 years prior to his termination. Ready asked the commission to reinstate Hopkins at its meeting on Tuesday. They did not do so, but set a hearing for March 11.
"What I wanted done, is the Civil Service Commission to use their power to reinstate this man, to put him back to work because the city, since August, has done nothing but thwart our efforts to get this man a hearing," Ready said after the meeting.
Ready said his efforts to prepare the case have been hampered because he has not received all of the information that he has requested. The city did submit a large portion of information on a thumb drive, Ready said, but it was too late to prepare for a Feb. 11 civil service hearing.
"I did not get the thumb drive that has just about everything on it until the afternoon of Feb. 4, after the mayor had removed the commissioners and the secretary," Ready said.
City Attorney Michael Goggans said the city has complied with Ready's requests.
"We've given far more than the rules require us to give," Goggans said. "We've gone above and beyond. Still, additional requests keep coming and coming."
Hopkins said although he has part time work, his family has struggled since his termination.
"It's been rough on us, employment wise and income wise. Our savings are just about depleted now," Hopkins said.
He and his wife are raising two of their grandchildren, he said.
"They went through Christmas without Christmas," Hopkins said.
Also on Tuesday, Palmer asked Goggans how Gloria Kirby, secretary to the commission, had been suspended with pay. Goggans replied that as a city employee, she is subject to suspension just like any other employee, but noted that perhaps she could be allowed to continue her duties as secretary to the commission, but not other civil service duties. Goggans said he would research the matter and talk with Palmer about it.
The city and the commissioners are awaiting word from the Mississippi Attorney General as to who has firing authority of the commission and who will conduct a hearing.