Terri Ferguson Smith
Meridian's mayor and city council butted heads on Thursday during a special called meeting to discuss Mayor Percy Bland's firing of the chief financial officer and removal of four Civil Service commissioners. Bland announced the changes late Tuesday, just hours after a City Council meeting during which nothing was said about the pending terminations.
The council unanimously voted for a hiring freeze in the city, following a hour-long session of questions and concerns.
Ward 1 Councilman George Thomas, who is council president, first asked the mayor if the media accounts of CFO Ed Skipper's termination were correct, and if the commissioners had also been let go.
"As of today, council has received no notification of that and we would like to know, first of all Mr. Mayor, is that true?" Thomas asked.
Bland said that was correct and in addition, the civil service secretary was suspended with pay, pending a hearing set for Monday afternoon for the commissioners and the secretary.
The lack of notification, although not required, also raised the ire of other council members, including Ward 5 Councilman Randy Hammon, who said the mayor could have at least discussed it with them beforehand. Kim Houston, councilwoman, Ward 4, agreed.
"We gotta do better," Houston said. "It makes us look bad when we don't know what's going on."
Thomas asked the mayor under what authority the civil service personnel were removed.
Michael Goggans, city attorney, cited the law that gives the appointing power that authority — in this case the mayor, as well as the authority to conduct the hearing. Ward 2 Councilman Dustin Markham, who is also an attorney, disagreed, saying it was the council's responsibility and authority.
Markham said the City Council, not the mayor, should conduct the commissioners' hearing on Monday, citing a 1996 attorney general's opinion regarding the city of Columbus and the removal of a civil service commissioner there.
The AG opinion stated that "the appointing power of the Civil Service Commission is the city council of the City of Columbus."
Goggans replied that the city of Columbus is under a special charter, and the attorney general's opinion would not apply to Meridian. Goggans said the mayor is the governing and appointing authority.
"Even though Columbus has a mayor and a council, they are not one of the nine mayor/council forms of government in Mississippi," Goggans said after the meeting. " As such, divisions of power are often different in other forms of government."
Goggans said he will talk with council members today to review the law and determine who will conduct the hearing.
During Thursday's meeting, Markham disagreed with Goggans' interpretation and said the opinion was clear and that the City Council would conduct the hearing, not the mayor. It remains to be seen as to who will actually hold the hearing.
However, the Civil Service code of rules states that the "appointing authority is the mayor or properly authorized designee(s) who, by the law, has the power of appointment to and removal from positions."
There was no debate over Bland's authority in firing Skipper, who worked for the city for more than 35 years. Department heads know that they serve at the will and pleasure of the mayor, as Skipper himself noted in an interview with The Meridian Star on Wednesday. However, Thomas said that because Skipper had been an employee of the city since before the city's form of government had changed, he might be entitled to civil service protection.
A copy of the state law provided by Markham states that directors of departments are excluded from Civil Service protection, but there is a notable exception.
"Provided, however, all individuals serving as heads of departments at the time of the municipality's adoption of the mayor-council form as described in this chapter shall continue to be covered by the provisions of the civil service system in effect at the time the mayor-council form is adopted," the law states.
The timing of the civil service removals was particularly troublesome, Thomas said, because of some hearings that were set to be held soon. Because there is no way to have a quorum with just one commissioner, the commission cannot conduct these hearings and without a civil service secretary, job postings and testings cannot move forward, Thomas said. If the commissioners are removed after the hearing Monday and they choose to appeal to county circuit court, the case could be held up for months, leaving the city with no civil service, Thomas said.
Goggans said a new commission could be appointed and if a judge found in favor of the former commissioners, the judge would likely issue an order which would in effect, remove the new commissioners and reinstate the former commissioners.
Ward 3 Councilwoman Barbara Henson asked if the council could consult a different attorney to investigate the matter and Thomas said that they were within their authority to do so. They took no action on that Thursday.
Asked about the hiring freeze after the meeting, Bland said they had anticipated not being able to hire employees for a while.
"We are fine right now. We were going to do that with everything going on with Civil Service anyway. We knew that we could not hire anyone else until we got this situation resolved," Bland said. "We want to get this situation resolved because civil service is very important and we also want there to be more civil service meetings instead of just 12 a year. It greatly limits us. The whole process of civil service greatly limits our ability to provide services to fill the needs of the citizens."
Bland said he has asked Mike McGrevey, who was confirmed Tuesday as chief administrative officer, to look into what changes in civil service procedures might be needed.
"We're going to be conducting a comprehensive review of our entire workforce," McGrevey said. "We have old procedures in place and old policies in place. We've got to modernize those policies and that's one of our major initiatives that the mayor has asked me to take one."
As to who would conduct the hearing on Monday, Bland said the city will be prepared.
"We're going to look at everything they said and we'll deal with the hearing next week, one way or another," Bland said after the meeting. "If it gets pushed back, it will get pushed back but we will let the city attorney answer that."