County corrects hiring snafu

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Previously violated Open Meetings Act

Covington County commissioners plan to hire from within to replace county administrator Brenda Petty, whose retirement is effective Jan. 1.

Commissioners met on Monday to formalize those plans after decisions were made in a previous “informal” meeting that was called into question by The Star-News.

The commission met on Wed., Sept. 17, to adopt its budget for the 2015 fiscal year. After that meeting, Chairman Bill Godwin met with a reporter to discuss specifics about the budget.

While that meeting occurred, the four other commissioners – Kenneth Northey, Joe Barton, Carl Turman and Harold Elmore – went into a conference room to meet with the county administrator and with the assistant administrator, to whom they had previously offered the administrator’s job. That offer was not publicly discussed. The assistant administrator, Pam Steele, asked to meet with commissioners to decline the offer, commissioners said in Monday’s meeting.

Both the conference room door and blinds were closed during the Sept. 17 meeting, which Godwin later joined.

After learning of the meeting, The Star-News contacted county attorney Tom Albritton, noting that the commission had broken the Open Meetings Act.

Albritton, in turn, wrote a letter to commissioners, outlining the possible consequences of not following the Open Meetings Act. Godwin read the letter at Monday’s meeting.

Godwin also pointed out that he was not invited to the Sept. 17 conference room meeting.

Northey said it “wasn’t a planned meeting.”

“Ms. Steele told us she decided not to take the job,” he said. “We did not go in there to decide what was gon’ be done.”

Commissioner Elmore also asserted there was no meeting.

“We didn’t take action,” Elmore said. “There was not no voting on it at that time.”

However, after that meeting, Petty posted a notice of the job opening with an application deadline of Fri., Sept. 26, in county offices. Four current employees applied.

On Monday, Godwin told commissioners they had to “undo” that meeting, or the hiring they planned to do could be subject to litigation.

When Godwin said he wasn’t invited or included in the meeting with Steele, Turman replied, “It’s like the commissioners do not have any powers whatsoever. The chairman is going to be the chief cheese, or he’s gonna bust the thing wide open. Bill, I respect you and I love you, and I respect you as a Christian. I feel like you (are) a good Christian man. Why you want to fight us like you do? I cannot understand it.”

After discussion, commissioners voted 3-1 to open applications only to current employees, with Barton as the lone dissenter. The chairman only votes in case of a tie.

Godwin advocated opening the applications up to anyone qualified.

Barton agreed that consideration should be given to county employees.

“If they’re the most qualified, they’ll rise to the top,” he said. “But the private sector, we owe something to them, too.”

Applications will be accepted at the county administrative building through Friday, and interviews, which must be public, are set for Tues., Oct. 7, at 9:30 a.m., with applicants being considered in alphabetical order.

The Open Meetings Act requires that elected officials meet in public, and prohibits private meetings of a quorum of officials unless they first hold a public meeting and go into closed session. Public notice of meetings also must be given.

The county administrator notified some media of Monday’s special called meeting, as is required by law, but did not include The Star-News in that notification. A clerical error was cited.

This article was written after a review of the video of the meeting, available on YouTube, as well as discussions with Godwin and Petty.

The county administrator is appointed by, and serves at the pleasure of, the commission. The position is not subject to the county’s merit system.