Meridian Star

April 16, 2014

Council lifts hiring freeze, hiring hurdles remain

The Meridian Star



By Terri Ferguson Smith


            City officials lifted a hiring freeze on Tuesday to begin the process of filling jobs they have been unable to fill since the debate over the future of the Civil Service Commission began in early February.

            Hearings for four civil service commissioners ended last week with the removal of Chairman John Watts but the retention of three others who had been given notices of removal in February. Also longtime civil service secretary Gloria Kirby was reassigned to another department.  Following hearings last week, Mayor Percy Bland withdrew his removal notices of three commissioners.

            Kirby's removal, which effectively began in February, has complicated issues for the city because as a secretary to the commission, she had responsibilities no one else had. Until a new secretary is appointed, there can be no testing for city jobs, although seasonal and some part-time positions can be filled.

            Discussions Tuesday led the council to vote 4-1 to lift the hiring freeze, with the understanding that no testing will take place until a secretary is appointed. However, potential city employees who are already on a list of eligible candidates, could be hired, according to Michael Goggans, city attorney.

            Ward 2 Councilman Dustin Markham cast the lone dissenting vote because he said he wanted to wait to lift the hiring freeze until a civil service secretary was appointed.

            Council stayed on civil service topics, voting unanimously to appoint Markham to a three-member committee that will examine the Civil Service Commission's code; and all city employee hiring and firing practices. Chief Administrative Officer Mike McGrevey will also serve on the committee, as will an as yet unnamed member of the Civil Service Commission.

            Ward 1 Councilman and council president, Dr. George Thomas said he supports the work of the committee. He and other council members have learned through the commission hearings and investigation that changes need to be made. Among the issues revealed in hearings was the practice of grading on the curve — or otherwise adjusting scores in order to get enough candidates from which to choose. In hearings it was noted that grading on the curve is an accepted practice as long as every test-taker's test is adjusted equally. Thomas said he would like the city to end the practice of adjusting scores.

            "You either pass or you don't," Thomas said. "That's the only fair way to do it."

            Thomas said he is glad the committee is going to look at not only  the Civil Service Commission, but the entirety of the city's employment policies.

            "What do we need to do as far as promotions? How do they get hired? How do they apply for jobs?" Thomas asked. "It's a total look at employment in the city. What policies do we need to have in effect? Do we need to look at vacation time? Do we need to look at benefits for the employees? Do we need to look at insurance for the employees?"

            The time for beginning the process of preparing a budget for 2015 is getting closer, and the city presently does not have a chief financial officer. McGrevey asked the council to approve a consulting agreement with Wayne Bland, the former associate vice president of Mississippi State University for Finance Administration. Bland has more than 30 years of accounting experience and McGrevey noted that Wayne Bland is not related to Mayor Bland. The council approved McGrevey's request to hire Bland as a consultant, with the council setting a salary cap at $30,000. Bland will work from April until October, which is when the new budget is due.

            "This year it's because we have not hired a CFO yet and we're down two positions in the accounting department," McGrevey said about the need for a consultant. "But most importantly, it's taking and doing a comprehensive review of the budgeting system."

            McGrevey said Ward 5 Councilman Randy Hammon had suggested a zero based budget.

            "We don't just start with where we have been in the past and use that as the baseline — we start over and every item has to be re-justified when we're going through it," McGrevey said.

            It's a very labor-intensive process, he added. McGrevey said they are still in the process of searching for a new CFO. That job has been open since February when the mayor fired long-time CFO Ed Skipper.

            In other action, the council gave the go-ahead to apply for a Community Development Block Grant for up to $600,000 to provide funding needed to replace the Old Highway 80 bridge over Okatibbee Creek. The bridge closed recently and the grant would require a 50 percent match from the city and possibly some work or funds from the county.

            The council also approved changing the city's subdivision rules to require sidewalks in subdivisions.