By Terri Ferguson Smith / firstname.lastname@example.org
The Meridian Star
The Meridian City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted down two of Mayor Percy Bland's vetoes, effectively leaving in place the new "citizens comments" rules and the new "temporary employees" rule.
On both ordinances, City Attorney Michael Goggans had previously advised the council in a work session last week that the new rules should be changed.
Among the specifications of the new rules for citizens comments, is a requirement to fill out a "Request to speak at City Council meeting" form that is available from the clerk of the council. The form must be returned to the clerk no later than 4 p.m. on the Monday of the week prior to the city council meeting. The rules also state that topics to be discussed are limited to the business of the city of Meridian.
"If it is deemed that the topic a citizen wants to discuss does not pertain to the business of the city of Meridian, then the citizen will not be placed on the agenda and will not be given the opportunity to address the city council."
In his veto of the citizens comments rules, Bland said the amendment "places impermissible time, place and manner restrictions on first amendment free speech likely resulting in the city being sued and having to pay damages."
"I want citizens comments but I want us to be in position to where we are not putting ourselves in a liable situation," Bland told the council before its vote on Tuesday. "We need to re-look at at the language."
Ward 2 Councilman Dustin Markham, an attorney who drafted the rules, said it is not unconstitutional.
"When something is unconstitutional it means that it is against the rights, as guaranteed by state constitution or federal constitution. This ordinance does not violate the constitution because it's not subject to the First Amendment freedom of speech," Markham said. "The reason it is not subject to the First Amendment freedom of speech is because it is not a guaranteed right. It is a privilege extended by the council."
Ward 1 Councilman George Thomas, president of the council, said many other government bodies, such as the state legislature, don't allow citizens comments on the agenda.
"The purpose of this meeting is a business meeting of the Meridian City Council to conduct the business of the city," Thomas said. "Council has added the mayor's report, which is not a requirement, we've allowed the presentation agenda, which is not a requirement, we've added citizens comments, which is not a requirement."
The council unanimously voted to override Bland's veto of the citizens comments rules.
Prior to the vote on the other veto — that of the new rules for temporary employees, Bland told the council that he was opening the books on all city employees to determine who had and who had not taken the civil service exam. Bland said later that there are a lot of professionals and non-professionals working for the city who have not gone through civil service testing.
The council's policy change for temporary hires means that new and existing jobs for department heads and the Chief Administrative Officer must be brought to the City Council for confirmation within 90 days of the date of the appointment. The council could grant an extension if it chose to, but if the mayor does not bring the confirmation to the council, and is not granted an extension, the newly appointed temporary department head or CAO could have their salary suspended by the council. Department heads jobs do not fall under the purview of the city's Civil Service Department.
For jobs that are under civil service, the council changed the rules so that even temporary hires must go through civil service hiring procedures after 90 days. The council's new rule calls for new temporary employees to be tested and interviewed for the job; and the job will have to be advertised within 90 days of the date the temporary employee's hiring. If that doesn't happen, the council could suspend the employee's pay.
"A list of 26 or so employees I gave you guys as it relates to this policy dates back to as far as 1989," Bland said. "A lot of these people have been doing jobs that they have been doing for years."
Bland said how the city proceeds with the testing of people for their jobs, along with what he predicted as the disruption in city services, particularly in Public Works and Parks and Recreation.
"Once you all decide on that — there are over 500 and something other employees — a lot of them have not taken tests. We're going to open up the books for everyone who has ever been employed with the city of Meridian. Just like our friends opened our books for everything we've done financially in the city of Meridian," Bland said. "A lot of the things we are coming into. I'm asking you guys, again, as it relates to these employees who are doing their jobs, who can do their jobs — to think about the decision you are about to make. Also think about your legislative powers and executive powers and what state statute is as it relates to our civil service laws and our employment laws."
Bland said there could be a disruption in city services if numerous employees have to take civil service tests.
"We're not going to have men and women who are going to be out there doing their work... this process is going to be across the board for everybody," Bland said. "What is fair and consistent is going to be fair and consistent. When you open up everything there are going to be a lot of people who have not gone through the system the correct way."
Ward 4 Councilwoman Kim Houston said the council is not trying to penalize city employees, but to make sure correct hiring practices are followed.
"These are some practices that have been in place for a very long time. It did not happen when Mayor Bland became mayor, but these are some bad practices that have gone on for years," Houston said. "Temporary, according to statute, is 90 days. There is no reason in the world that we should have people that have worked for this very fine city that have worked for over 20 years that are still temporary."
All full-time employees should be eligible for benefits, she said.
"Those people who work every day, Monday through Friday, 40 hours a week, there is no reason in the world why they should have the title of temporary, without benefits."
Ward 5 Councilman Randy Hammon agreed, and said the new rules will allow city employees who want to advance themselves to have the opportunity to do so.
"There are a lot of qualified people for those jobs that were not given an opportunity to test and take those jobs. Again, this has been going on a long time," Hammon said. "That's what we hear a lot. It wasn't right back then when it was going on and it's not right today when it's being done. This allows everybody a fair shot at those jobs where we can get the most qualified people for those jobs. That helps the city the most."
Thomas noted that the ordinance does not eliminate any positions nor does it add any.
"It gives those people 90 days in order to qualify for the position after it's advertised; it also gives them civil service protection," Thomas said. "If you work as a temporary employee, you can be fired without cause. Civil Service gives an employee protection. There must be cause for them to be dismissed."
The vote to override Bland's veto of the temporary employees ordinance passed unanimously.
The council unanimously rescinded its recent ordinance that would have restricted the number of dogs per household to three.
"There are a number of questions that still linger as it relates to how this ordinance will be enforced and what provisions or restrictions we are going to put on those individuals who are actually in violation," Markham said.
He said many people had contacted him and the rest of the council with concerns about the new rules. He added that a group would be working on the issue to bring back a recommendation to the council at a later date. Markham said it was the original intent of that ordinance to cite those individuals who are not responsible dog owners and whose animals were a health and safety hazard to their neighbors.
Houston said the council never intended to disturb responsible pet owners.
"We did not want this act to appear as if we're going to be knocking on your door to confiscate your animals. That is not the purpose of this particular ordinance," Houston said.
The council also approved a request from the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center board to pledge $1 million for the center's construction. The council pledged the payments over a 10-year period.