Ridgell firing upheld as reinstatement vote falls short

Fired City Collector Albert Ridgell’s appeal to the Pine Bluff City Council for a second reinstatement fell one vote short Monday night when Alderman Lloyd Holcomb Jr. denied the effort a necessary sixth nod for approval, changing his mind after supporting a termination override in a special called Aug. 23 meeting.

Joining Aldermen Bill Brumett and Wayne Easterly in denying Alderman George Stepps’ push to return Ridgell to the post he had held since June 2007, Holcomb reserved comment until after the meeting. Bemoaning a continuing “racial divide” among council members, Holcomb also offered some criticism of Mayor Debe Hollingsworth in her actions against Ridgell.

“The mayor does have an administrative right to hire and fire department heads, but the process she employed with Mr. Ridgell in firing him a second time on Tuesday, Oct. 15, was not one of a professional manner,” he said. “She sent out an email announcing his firing to all department heads and council members, and I don’t think that was proper.”

Advised of Holcomb’s charge, Hollingsworth responded with disagreement — and praise.

After saying she sent the email only to council members, the mayor said, “I want to thank Alderman Holcomb for doing the right thing with his vote.”

Holcomb told The Commercial that “constant racial strife” among the mayor and “certain aldermen” has created “confusion the entire year.” He said that a perception among some has been that Hollingsworth had a personal agenda against Ridgell.

“Apparently, there’s a conflict in their work relationship, whether it’s his or her fault,” Holcomb said. “This would be an ongoing conflict if Mr. Ridgell was reinstated again, and we would be right back to to a situation where he would be fired for some reason. My opinion is that if Mr. Ridgell feels he was wrongly judged according to his work attendance and performance, he ought to seek legal action.”

“I don’t have a personal conflict with Mr. Ridgell,” the mayor said, “but I do have a professional expectation of him. As this city’s chief executive officer, I am responsible for helping to ensure that it functions at its best.”

Hollingsworth hasn’t publicly stated her grounds for her latest termination of Ridgell. She originally dismissed him July 31, citing his “unsatisfactory work performance that has been documented for some time now.”

Stepps said last week that the latest firing was based on Ridgell — a Little Rock resident — having been late in arriving at work. Ridgell — who earned nearly $52,000 annually as collector — had been subjected to questions concerning problems with occupation license issues and collection of hamburger and motel taxes for which he and his staff were responsible.

Holcomb, who along with Stepps and Aldermen Charles Boyd, Glen Brown, Steven Mays and Alderwoman Thelma Walker voted to override Ridgell’s initial firing, said he wanted to stress that his vote against another reinstatement was not based “on a person’s race, but that we must make the best decisions for our city.”

Saying he understands that “other department heads of all races have been reprimanded for the same issue for which Mr. Ridgell was terminated,” Holcomb added, “It’s time for a change.

“When we as a council can set aside color and work together, then this city will be able to move forward as it should,” he said. “Both sides of this city council have played the race card when voting on certain issues. If we continue on this path, we’ll never progress as a city.

“Although I believe that the council is responsible for putting us in this predicament on this matter, I support what Alderman Holcomb is saying,” the mayor said. “A council and a mayor should be of one accord in positively advancing this city, and our actions should be based solely on facts and what’s best for our city.”

Monday night’s vote followed a 41-minute executive session. Easterly objected to Stepps’ call for the private considerations, but the motion was approved by a 7-1 margin.

When the panel returned to its public meeting, Stepps — saying that he believes all department administrators hadn’t been treated equally — made a motion for Ridgell’s reinstatement. Additional remarks were made by Stepps and Brown, but Easterly interrupted and issued a reminder on council procedures.

“We don’t discuss something in open session when we’ve had an executive session,” Easterly said. “We have a motion and vote.”

Hollingsworth participated in the executive session for its duration. Ridgell was in attendance in the open meeting, but was not called into the private conference room and left without comment moments after the council vote.