City attorney checking into legality of committee decision, telephone vote

Pine Bluff City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott said Friday that she is looking into the legality of Thursday’s decision by the Personnel Committee of the Pine Bluff Parks and Recreation Department to fire administrators Laura Hildreth and Angela Parker.

Hadden-Scott said the fact that Parks commissioner Kami Hunt voted by telephone in Thursday’s meeting could render the committee’s vote invalid. Hadden-Scott said she also is looking into the matter to determine whether the commitee has the power to fire an employee, or whether the committee’s power is limited to simply recommending to the full commission that an employee be fired.

The vote by the three-member committee — which includes Chris Blunt and Jeff Pulliam — was unanimous, and their nods would constitute a majority with the five-member commission. But if a commissioner must be physically present to vote, Hunt’s Thursday participation would be voided. Commissioners Carson Field and Abel White are not members of the committee and were not present.

Parker, director of the city’s Parks Department, and Hildreth, who serves as director of the city’s community centers, were given the option of being fired or resigning. Pulliam said Hildreth’s dismissal was based on her failed oversight of the Chester Hynes After-School Enrichment Program. Pulliam said Parker’s firing was prompted in part by her “mismanagement” of Hildreth.

“I will not resign,” said Parker, who has been head of the Parks department the past seven years and is less than five years shy of retirement. “I have done nothing wrong, and I will fight this.”

She called the reasoning for her termination “ridiculous.”

Blunt and Pulliam also agreed that Parker does not possess the commission’s desired “skills set” for leading the department on assorted future endeavors and that commissioners had been dissatisfied with Parker’s performance in some past instances that were not related.

Hadden-Scott said neither the mayor nor the city council can override the committee’s action.

The only recourse through government procedures at this time might be abolishing of the commission. That would require six votes from the eight-member city council to enact an ordinance that would make the parks and recreation director an independent department head responsible only to the mayor. The police and fire chiefs were given such status and the mayor was given sole authority in naming persons to those positions.

Hildreth and Parker have five days to appeal their firings to the full parks and recreation commission. They also can challenge the decision in circuit court.

Hildreth and Parker were suspended without pay Dec. 11 in the wake of a $117,000 budget shortfall that was inclusive of the youth program in question. A Pine Bluff Police Department investigation into the Hynes activity was completed last week and determined that no theft or misappropriation of funds had occurred.

After Thursday’s decision, Pulliam announced that Parker’s administrative assistant — Melissa McHan — would now have dual authority with Trudy Redus, manager of the Saracen Landing facility, in directing the agency. Pulliam said McHan’s title had previously been changed to office manager, effective Jan. 1, 2013.

Trudy Redus — wife of Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. — was named interim office director when Parker was suspended. She served a commission-imposed, two-week suspension without pay in May after an April accident involving a department utility vehicle she was driving. After the mishap in which her young son was injured, she failed to obtain a drug test as ordered by Parker. Redus appealed her suspension, which the commission upheld in a 3-2 vote.

On Dec. 17, the city council approved a $100,000 “emergency” budget transfer from previously appropriated funds so the department could meet payroll expenses for the remainder of the calendar year. The mayor, however, had already enacted the transfer.