Newly elected county commission chairman Todd Higdon won’t be able to hire and fire employees when he takes office Jan. 1.
County commissioners voted 4-0 Monday, with Theresa Bettis absent, to move hiring and firing responsibilities to the district commissioners and away from the chairman.
Before the board’s discussion of the matter, both Higdon and BOC District 2 Democratic candidate Conolus Scott Jr. addressed the commissioners, asking the board to delay a vote on policy changes until a new board is sworn in Jan. 1.
“I would ask that you consider holding off on taking this amendment or adjusting this amendment until the new board is put in place,” said Scott. “I do have opinions of the personnel as to the changes you’re considering to make, but I will not express those at this time, but I do believe the timing is wrong to make these adjustments.”
Higdon said he was confused about why the change was deemed necessary and he asked the board to wait until new members fill the seats.
“I’m not real clear on why this was even brought up,” he said. “I think Madison County has operated this way for the past 12 years. I know after speaking with Chairman (Anthony) Dove (2009-16) that this comes up yearly and it can be changed yearly; it just hasn’t been over the past 12 years. In talking with some of the surrounding counties, friends of mine which are chairman in those counties, they also did not understand this, because they said this is a double-edged sword. So I’m asking also for this not to be adopted yet until the new seats are filled…I think those guys should have an opinion on it.”
Higdon also addressed the board about communication, saying that one of his primary campaign points was having good communication. He said an email was sent to board members on his behalf regarding the proposed personnel policy changes and that no commissioners had responded to him.
“I did not get a response from any,” said Higdon. “I was just curious as to what the thought process was to change it (the hiring and firing policy), but no commissioner responded back. My cell phone number was on there. Guys, that’s not a real good way to start off communication, transparency — not responding back to the chairman elect.”
The policy changes strip the chairman’s position of hiring and firing power, but leave the chairman’s authority to issue verbal and written reprimands and suspensions without pay.
District 5 commissioner Derek Doster made the motion to approve the policy changes.
“I understand possibly there’s concern — or if there’s a question of timing. I don’t think it’s a nefarious type situation,” said Doster. “My concern, and I’ve shared this with a couple of people I’ve talked to. Didn’t get around to calling everybody back. But the short answer is, I think there’s safety in numbers. We don’t have a professional manager doing day-to-day operations. I think the true hiring and firing of personnel in the county, I think sometimes we need a legal opinion, and I think it serves a purpose to have a pause or communication, like you said. We’ve communicated on different personnel decisions in the past.
Doster said it’s not his intent for the board to take over day-to-day operations of the county from the chairman.
“It’s just on the hiring and firing,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an opportunity to have a hostile takeover or any form of that. Sometimes we need paid professional staff to help make recommendations on certain things…It’s just a better collaborative effort.”
District 2 Commissioner Tripp Strickland, whose term will end Dec. 31, said county employees have been worried about whether they will have a job in 2021.
“I think the difference between this election and years before was a lot of talk about what’s going on, had a lot of nervous people afraid for their job and that makes for probably not the best working situation that you would be able to step into,” said Strickland to Higdon. “If the 2021 board sees to reverse these, they can reverse it if they see fit to do that. There’s nothing they can’t take back.”
Strickland responded to Higdon’s comment about a lack of communication, saying “as far as communication goes, you need to call us. You got my number. You know where we are.”
District 4 Commissioner Brian Kirk agreed with Doster, adding that the change is “not adversarial at all.”
“There is some safety in numbers and this doesn’t have any negative on the new board that’s coming in, because the new board members will be part of that group that is doing the hiring or the firing or whatever else is there,” said Kirk. “Everybody gets a vote and gets their input in that. I agree that it’s something that should have been that way. I don’t understand why it’s not been that way. You have people elected for all the different districts. And I think that because we can then take our knowledge from different areas and make good decisions on those.”
Kirk added that the policy still allows the chairman to make recommendations on who to hire.
“I think we can have a good working relationship,” said the commissioner. “I don’t see this as being adversarial. And I really don’t appreciate someone trying to make it adversarial, because I don’t see it that way…I think it’s better if we have a wide array of opinions on things and we get input from a lot of folks.”
District 1 Commissioner Lee Allen, whose term will end Dec. 31, and who will be replaced by newly elected Dennis Adams, approved of the change.
“This isn’t a SCOTUS pick; this isn’t a life-long decision here,” said Allen. “This is something that can be changed by the next one. We have elections staggered every year. Do we wait? I’m a lame duck. I know I am, but I took an oath to go through the end of this year. And I’ll continue to do that. This is something that I think should have been addressed before.”
In other business, the board agreed to use $50,000 in 2020 sales tax money allocated for the courthouse to go toward a bill that’s due on replacing the courthouse roof. The board discussed abandoning Andrew Adams Road, Ray O’Kelley Road, a portion of Burroughs Smith Road and a portion of O’Kelley Road. The group also discussed adopting Wesley Chapel Drive and Fowler Freeman Lane.