Big changes could be in store for the county planning and zoning and building inspections offices.

Madison County commissioners will likely strip the directors in both offices of their department head status this month, a move that would be accompanied by a pay cut.

Just how much salary the directors might lose still hasn’t been determined.

The BOC could also combine the two offices under one department head and move the departments into the current magistrate office, with the judge taking over the current planning office and building inspection room, using part of the space as a courtroom. The board may also cut a building inspector from full-time to part-time.

A vote on the matters could come later this month.

The board of commissioners met Dec. 4 with planning and zoning director Linda Fortson and county chief building inspector Eddie Pritchett. Both employees were questioned about their hours on the job and Fortson was asked to explain recent derogatory Facebook posts she made about the county commissioners.

Commissioner Mike Youngblood asked for Fortson to come to the table in the BOC meeting room, where he handed her a stack of papers and asked her to read them to the board and explain what she wrote.

Fortson was teary eyed as she stood at the podium and said she felt disrespected by Youngblood at a recent meeting. She said she has a lot of family and friends on Facebook and that she was seeking spiritual support from them after feeling mistreated at a recent meeting.

“I felt I needed the hand of God; this is my prayer chain,” said Fortson. “I felt I was being bullied and mistreated for doing my job and I was asking for the hand of God to come down and touch me. That’s exactly what this was. This is no longer on there. I did remove it.”

Fortson told Youngblood that she felt he had been very “ugly and very disrespectful” toward her and that she wouldn’t have spoken to him as she did to her.

Youngblood said he wasn’t being disrespectful but was being direct and to the point about the problems he had with Fortson. He said that if Fortson had a problem with him or any other board member, then he should directly confront the board members and not post the issues on Facebook.

“I was straight to the point on issues that needed to be discussed,” he said. “…If you have a problem, you should address us and not put it on Facebook.”

Youngblood asked Fortson once again to read the Facebook comments to board members. But commission chairman Anthony Dove asked county clerk Rhonda Wooten to make copies of the postings for the commissioners.

Dove said he was disappointed in Fortson for her postings. He said members of the public can say whatever they like in public about elected officials, but he said employees, who work under those officials, can face consequences of such speech.

“It is afforded to the public to say anything about a public official,” said Dove. “It is not afforded to an employee.”

Commissioner Stanley Thomas said one comment from Fortson alleged that the board sexually discriminated against female employees. Thomas said that this was far from true and that the county work force includes numerous females in prominent positions.

Fortson has drawn considerable criticism in recent months from board members and citizens in the Booger Hill Road community. She issued a permit for a crematory at Ivie Funeral Home in the spring, noting that the plans complied with local and state guidelines. Many critics have said Fortson should have notified other officials and the public when that permit was issued. It was nearly six months before the plans for the crematory were widely known. However, those who have supported Fortson have said the permit was public record and that anyone, including the commissioners, could have visited the planning office and seen what was in the works.

But Thomas and Youngblood said Thursday that the proposed changes in the planning and building inspections offices have nothing to do with the crematory issue.

Thomas said both the planning and inspections offices were busy before the housing crash, but he said the work hasn’t picked up that much. He said reductions in the departments are necessary due to the lack of work.

Youngblood said Fortson has not done a good job keeping the planning office open. He said she should have worked closer with the building inspections office to make sure the office door was open whenever she wasn’t there. Youngblood has also said Fortson has not kept him informed of zoning matters in his district, like he requested.

Fortson is the only person employed in the planning office. She said she can’t work miracles and be in two places at once, both in the office and out, when she has time off. She said she has left a note on the door for citizens to visit the building inspections office when she is out. But Youngblood said citizens shouldn’t find a note on the door at county offices.

While Fortson was the focus of a portion of Thursday’s meeting, commissioner John Pethel questioned work records in the building inspections office. He noted that records Pritchett provided of an employee in the office didn’t match the pay records the employee submitted. He also questioned why Pritchett was in the office for several days without performing any inspections. Pritchett said there are a number of office responsibilities he must handle along with inspections.

The commissioners said they are considering taking department head status away from both Fortson and Pritchett and placing a third person in charge of the combined department. Pritchett said that he has worked hard for the county and done what was asked of him, including getting all the necessary certification for the job. He said he couldn’t afford to take a pay cut and he asked why the board wouldn’t consider making either he or Fortson the department head. Thomas said there is a history of the two not working well together and he said putting one over the other may exacerbate that problem.

No names were mentioned regarding who the new planning and zoning/building inspections director might be. However, Dove could end up filling that role, at least temporarily.

Commissioner Jim Escoe noted that Jackson County hires a private firm to handle its building inspections. And the board agreed to seek information on how that works. Thomas said he wants assurances that having a private firm handle inspections work wouldn’t lead to delays for builders if a company has more clients than it can handle. He also said that liability issues for the inspections would need to be ironed out before any agreement is made.

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