The Pine Bluff City Council heard more input from the public Monday on two proposals that would essentially re-establish Civil Service Commission-type citizen-led panels to hear disciplinary appeals from uniformed city personnel.
One of the proposals is from Alderman Steven Mays and would re-establish the Civil Service Commission. A second is from Alderman Thelma Walker and would retain the current Review Committee but make significant changes to it, most notably changing the committee makeup from city employees to members of the public.
Both proposals were discussed by the Public Safety Committee, which opted to forward both proposals to the full council for a final decision rather than making a formal do-pass recommendation on either item.
During the full council meeting, the items were read once and placed on the schedule to be read again at the next council meeting on March 19. They will have to be read three times before they can be voted upon, but the council has the option to hold more than one reading at the same meeting.
From the audience, Scott Hicks, president of the Arkansas Division of the Police Benevolent Association Inc., addressed both the committee and the full council to state his organization’s support for re-establishing the Civil Service Commission.
“We just want to make our public record [statement] that we are in support of reinstating the Civil Service Commission back in for city of Pine Bluff employees,” Hicks said, citing a lack of confidence in Police Chief Brenda Davis-Jones’ disciplinary decisions as one of the reasons for the group’s position.
The Police Benevolent Association opposed the abolition of the Civil Service Commission when the council originally voted to dissolve it in 2007. The association filed a lawsuit challenging the change, and a judge ordered that the commission could not be dissolved until the conclusion of the lawsuit. A settlement was reached in June 2011, making way for the commission to be abolished.
Personnel matters are now handled by the leadership of the respective departments. To preside over appeals of disciplinary actions, the city council voted to establish a three-member Review Committee made up of an assistant city attorney selected by the city attorney, a department head and city employee who are selected at random for each case.
Also from the audience, the Rev. Jesse Turner, Mary Jo McCord and Mike Barbarotto spoke in favor of changing the current setup.
Turner encouraged the council to “right a wrong.”
“We believe that abolishing the Civil Service Commission when it was abolished was wrong,” Turner said.
Turner asked what was wrong with the former Civil Service Commission’s structure. He said there is no need to reinvent the wheel, argued against setting the bar too high for people to serve on the commission and said independence is a key element for the panel to function properly.
McCord asked the council to set up a body that is impartial and apolitical.
“I’m here to ask the council to re-establish the Civil Service Commission for our public service men and women, an impartial, non-political commission,” McCord said. “As it stands now, a three-person panel that essentially works for the city is not really a buffer for these people.”
McCord said she did not agree with an idea suggested by Mays, but not actually included in the legislation’s language, that the commission members be college graduates or have some police or fire experience. She also disagreed with the idea that the committee members be selected and confirmed by the council, arguing that having all the members be friends of the council would not be best. McCord suggested instead that commission members be selected from the voter rolls similar to they way that jurors are selected, but with the option for people to opt out of service if they choose.
Barbarotto also argued for re-establishing the Civil Service Commission.
“We need an impartial team to deal with disciplinary issues within both the police department and the fire department so that all the employees would get the same treatment, get the same benefits,” Barbarotto said.
Mays’ proposed ordinance outlines a seven-member board of Pine Bluff residents, with appointments made by the city council.
Walker’s proposed ordinance would keep the Review Committee but change its makeup to 10 members divided into two panels of five members each. Any decision reached must be agreed upon by the majority of the whole number of each panel.
Any decision made by the committee could be appealed by the employee to the full City Council. The police and fire chiefs would not be able to appeal the decision.
Members would have to be Pine Bluff residents and be registered to vote. They would be eligible for reappointment to one succeeding term. Members would be appointed by members of the city council and the mayor, with each alderman appointing one member and the mayor appointing two members — all subject to confirmation by the council.
Each panel would select one of its members as chairman for each review case. The makeup of each panel would vary from case to case, to be determined at random.
In addition to the committee, the city would also be required to retain a private attorney to offer advice for any legal issues. The attorney used would rotate and be selected at random from a list maintained by the Human Resources Department. The cost for retaining the attorney would be paid by the department from which the appeal originated.
Under the proposal, five members of the committee would serve two-year terms and five members would serve three-year terms, to be determined by drawing lots.
Since the Review Committee has been in place, it has: overturned the firing of firefighter James “Tony” Gibson, who tested positive for marijuana; upheld the 30-day suspension of police officer Andrea Cherry, who was late for court, missed work and was insubordinate; overturned the firing of former Lt. Rowland Dorman, who was accused of sexual harassment; and reduced from 10 days to five days the suspension of Detective Charles Marty Harrison for not being able to locate one of his service weapons.
In other business, the council:
• Approved 8-0 a resolution to accept the donation of the historic Boone-Murphy House at 714 W. Fourth Ave. from the Heckatoo Heritage Foundation.
• Approved 7-1 an ordinance that waives competitive bidding and authorizes the execution of a contract with Pictometry International Corp. to produce aerial photographs of the city. An emergency clause causing the item to go into immediate effect was also approved 7-1. Walker voted against the ordinance and the emergency clause, citing concerns that the photos might violate peoples’ legal rights to privacy. The council also approved 8-0 the funds to make an initial payment on the service, $6,357.
• Read once a proposed ordinance that would make the bus fare for riders 62 and over free on Transit Department buses.
• Approved 8-0 a budget adjustment to pay Lt. Jeff Hubanks of the police department $17,085 in unused sick hours. Hubanks retired Feb. 29 with 28 years with the department.
• Pulled from the agenda a proposed resolution that would request the Pine Bluff Police Department assign two detectives or officers to handle “cold” felony criminal cases involving death or serious injury and provide regular updates concerning progress in the cases. Its sponsor, Mays, was told that the police department already investigates cold cases. Mays said he would temporarily suspend his proposal until he had time to talk more with the department about what they do.
• Pulled from the agenda a proposed resolution that would request a police presence be established in the Family Community Development Center in the University Park community. Mays said he was temporarily suspending the item until he could discuss it further with Davis-Jones, who said she did not remember touring the facility, which has housed a substation in the past.
• Approved 8-0 a resolution placing the cost of correcting nuisances on the tax books as delinquent taxes.