Commission still at odds over personnel decision

Published 10:59 pm Friday, July 20, 2012

Just because something is legal, doesn’t make it right.

That’s the stance Pike County Commissioner Jimmy Barron is taking over what he believes was a disservice to the county and county employees.

“Our employees are outraged over this,” Barron said of the recent job description and title change of the Pike County Human Resources Director to the Personnel and Safety Director.

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On May 14, with one commissioner absent, the commission voted 3-2 to make the change to McKenzie Wilson’s job and salary – boosting her pay $8,175 annually.

Barron and Charlie Harris voted no. Homer Wright, Ray Goodson and Robin Sullivan voted for the change.

“Other people, other qualified people, were not even given the opportunity,” Barron said. “We’ve got people all over this county that might have been qualified and didn’t get the chance.”

Barron said the commission was blindsided by the appearance of the recommendation on the commission meeting agenda. County Administrator Harry Sanders said that absolutely wasn’t the case.

“This didn’t come out of the blue. We talked about the concept before. It’s a very straight-forward and simple business decision,” Sanders said. “Whatever goes on here, we should be able to do it in the public square. Nothing was hidden.”

To top off Barron’s feelings about the change, he’s also upset that Wilson is the niece of commissioner Goodson, who according to meeting records, made the motion to accept the proposed position and salary increase for Wilson.

“We can’t buy machinery we need, but we can give (a commissioner’s) niece an $8,000 raise?” Barron said referencing Goodson’s previous votes.

Barron questioned what he refers to as “behind the scenes” dealing before the official vote. He says he received a letter from Meadowbrook Insurance Group in his commission mailbox dated April 5 referencing an April 3 visit to Pike County during which an insurance company representative met with Wright, Sanders and Wilson, whom the letter identifies as the county’s “Human Resource and Safety Coordinator.”

“They gave her the title before we even voted on it,” Barron said. “More than a month before it was brought to the commission for a vote.”

The other commissioner who voted against the title change and pay increase also cited that letter. Harris said he didn’t mind giving Wilson a raise – even saying he felt she was capable of doing the job well. But, he said, the letter from Meadowbrook Insurance Group upset him.

“I have a problem that (the change) was already done,” Harris said. “It was a done deal when they brought it to the table. That is what upset me the most.”

Sanders disagreed. He said part of his job as county administrator is to assign work duties, and at the time of the letter, he had assigned work duties to Wilson. She did not receive a raise or an official title change until the commission agreed that it was a good idea and voted to approve the change.

The debate has prompted review of legal and ethical standards. Barron said he consulted the Alabama Ethics Commission regarding the matter. Although the Ethics Commission said nothing illegal happened at the meeting, Barron still disagrees with the way the issue was presented to the commissioners. Harris said he feels the same way and even tried to table the issue until all commissioners were present to vote.

At the request of the commission, Attorney Allen C. Jones researched the legality of the vote. He also reported back to the commission on June 25, noting he found no violations of the county’s handbook. Jones reported in his findings that recruitment and selection, and promotion/demotion/transfer rules didn’t apply to the vote because additional duties were being added to an existing position.

But, to Barron, an $8,000 raise for additional duties and a job title change is more than simply taking on a larger workload.

“I wouldn’t have had a problem classifying it as ‘additional duties’ if it had been a two-step raise or another plan,” Barron said. “Or if we’d been allowed to discuss other candidates.”

This isn’t the first time the commission has squabbled over giving Wilson a raise. On Oct. 24, 2011, Sanders approached the commission with a plan to promote Wilson to administrator assistant with an $8,589 annual raise.

“It didn’t pass then. The commission didn’t feel we needed that position,” Barron recalled. “Ray Goodson got mad and walked out of the meeting. It’s like they just found a new way to give her a raise.”

The justification for the raise this time, according to paperwork submitted to the commission by Sanders, is money saved by appointing a safety director.

Sanders told the commission the county would receive a $7,500 refund per year from the AACA Workers Compensation Insurance by appointing a safety coordinator. That figure would increase if proactive safety measures were put in place to cut down on workplace injuries. Also, he said Wilson would be taking on even more duties because the commission allowed a current administrative assistant who handled some human resource duties to reduce hours and work a part-time position.

Sanders said Wilson’s increased responsibility meant more work and more time and that the additional duties were worthy of a pay increase. That’s where the commission came in. Sanders explained that with new duties assigned as part of a current job, a job could be reassessed and a pay raise considered as part of the county’s own policy.

“Instead of hiring and training new people, we asked Ms. Wilson to take on additional duties,” Sanders said. “We compensated an employee who took on extra work with no complaint. The person doing this job now is the most qualified and natural person you could think of for the position.”

Barron still isn’t satisfied. “I wouldn’t be doing my job on the commission if I didn’t let the public know,” Barron said. “I can’t find anyone to tell me something illegal happened. But I know what happened wasn’t right.”