Meridian Star

Local News

February 16, 2014

Improper grading, open meetings at heart of civil service dispute

MERIDIAN — Terri Ferguson Smith

tsmith@themeridianstar.com    

    Grading on a curve and holding improper closed door sessions are among the charges that Mayor Percy Bland has laid out before the city of Meridian Civil Service Commission.

    On Feb. 4, 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.

    A copy of the notices of removal spells out why the commissioners were being served and it included strong wording. Despite some initial confusion over whether the commissioners were still able to meet before they have a hearing, the entire board met on Tuesday.

    The four notices all begin with the same opening paragraph.

    "I find that you have demonstrated incompetency, dereliction of duty, and other good cause for removal," the notices state.

    On Friday, Bland said he initially became concerned about the activities of the commission because of concerns raised by department heads about activities which he believes are outside the scope of the commissioners' authority.

    "The last event was (receiving) signed affidavits about the testing," Bland said. "As the investigation goes on, other issues may come out."

    The testing to which Bland referred was an examination given by Civil Service for human resources director in January. Bland asked the commission if they would be discussing the the results of the exam at its Jan. 14 meeting, but he was told that the results of the exam would be issued in due time, Bland's notice statement said.

    Additionally, the commission took no action on that issue and did not certify a list of eligible candidates, Bland said. The removal notice states that although the examination did not produce a single passing score, the mayor did receive a list of two eligible candidates the next day.

    "The scores of the examination were curved so that two people were made to pass," Bland wrote.

    Because applicants were not informed that the examinations would be graded on a curve, examiners were not supposed to score it in that manner, Bland said.

    Commissioners failed "to inform all civil service examinees that the examination would be curved or that the final grade would be anything other than the actual score," Bland's removal notices states.

    Also, the exam itself is lacking, Bland charged, because it did not test applicants for the "skill set necessary."

    Rather, it contained general management questions and a large amount of accounting questions. There were no questions about human resources issues, Bland's complaint states.

    Bland's complaint makes several references to violations of the state's Open Meetings Act, including accusations that commissioners  have "repeatedly entered into lengthly executive sessions with little to no disclosure of the topics of such executive session."

    He further charges that commissioners violated its own rules by passing an amendment on Jan. 14 requiring the administration to report to it all part time employees while acknowledging that it had no jurisdiction over part time employees. It states that Watts also told Chief of Police James Lee that a discipline he had issued to an officer was insufficient, even though that matter had not been appealed to the commission.

    And, Bland states, in that same meeting, Watts said that giving housing to certain police officers was an improper grant of salary. Issues of salary are not within the commission's authority, yet "Chairman Watts sought to use his position and power to influence and direct matters outside the commission's purview."

    City and commission officials are awaiting an opinion from from the Mississippi Attorney General's office to determine who the governing authority is with regard to the removal of commissioners and who will conduct their hearings.

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