The Pine Bluff Parks and Recreation Commission will meet at 5:30 p.m. today to consider the continued employment of Director Angela Parker and Community Centers Director Laura Hildreth. Comments will be received at the public meeting, which will be held in the council chambers at city hall.
Hildreth and Parker were originally suspended with pay on Dec. 11. They were given an option to resign or be terminated on Dec. 27. The commission’s three-member personnel committee declared that Parker had “mismanaged” Hildreth in Hildreth’s “failed” oversight of the Chester Hynes After-School Enrichment Program.
Committee Chairman Jeff Pulliam also stated that Parker’s dismissal was partially based on the long-time director, who is eligible to retire in four years, not possessing the “skills set” the commission wants in a chief as new projects approach.
Meanwhile, a local police investigation into the program determined that some students’ participation fees apparently were not collected from parents and delivered to Parker according to schedule, but no theft or misappropriation of funds occurred. The program woes are related to a $117,000 departmental budget shortfall.
But City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott last week asserted that the dismissals were invalid because the “personnel committee cannot independently make the decision to terminate any employee.” Hadden-Scott said the full, five-member commission is to receive a recommendation of the committee so that all the commissioners present may “weigh in and ask questions” on the committee’s suggestion.
Hadden-Scott referenced Arkansas Code Annotated 14-269-203, which states in part, “The commissioners shall have the right to employ or remove managers, janitors and other employees …”
“Therefore, it is my opinion that this power lies with the entire commission, not just the personnel committee,” Hadden-Scott said. Hildreth and Parker were immediately returned to their paid leave status.
Also last week, new Mayor Debe Hollingsworth indicated she will seek the commission’s abolishment so that the department can fall under direct supervision of the mayor. Hollingsworth told a West Pine Bluff Rotary Club audience, “Let your aldermen know how you feel about the situation,” adding that the matter would soon be “coming before the city council.”
The committee’s controversial decision has drawn more criticism than support.
Hollingsworth said that although the department’s current troubles started before her watch, she believes “the buck stops with me.”
Parker has pledged to “fight” any commission efforts to fire her. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” she maintains. She has made no other on-the-record statements. Hildreth has offered no comments.