Four Lowndes County E-911 dispatchers have an ultimatum to sign a memorandum, acknowledging they will not skip out on work, or face termination.
County supervisors discussed firing several dispatchers this week after six called in sick on April 10 and 11. The board on Monday tasked Sheriff Mike Arledge and his department to interview the dispatchers. The investigation came in the wake of three dispatchers calling in sick the night of April 10 and the following shift of three doing so the next morning.
County officials, including Board President Harry Sanders, said they believe the absences were in response to some E-911 workers receiving a raise as the county increased the entry-level hourly rate, while others — who were already at or more than the new entry rate — didn’t.
According to a report presented to supervisors during executive session of Friday’s special-called meeting and released afterwards to local media, dispatchers Stephanie Brewer and Kristy Swearingen presented medical excuses for their absences. Four others — Latonya Malone, Melody Profiet, Felicia Jefferson and Lynn Brooks — did not, but most claimed, when investigators questioned them, they were sick at the time of their shifts. Jefferson refused to comment to investigators, according to the report.
The E-911 board met April 13 and voted against firing the dispatchers. The board then issued a memorandum to all dispatchers warning them not to repeat last week’s actions.
“This is clearly not the way to handle the situation regarding raises,” the memorandum says. “… Your actions put the well-being of the citizens of Columbus and Lowndes County in jeopardy. … Please be advised that these types of actions will not be tolerated by this board and will result in immediate dismissal if it occurs again.”
Eleven of the 17 dispatchers on staff have signed the memorandum. Two of the remaining six — a part-time worker and one out on maternity leave — have not yet received it to sign.
But four of them — Brewer, Jefferson, Malone and Profiet — have had an opportunity to sign it and return it, but have not, according to E-911 Director Shalonda Givens and E-911 board attorney Will Cooper.
Once supervisors learned Friday of the missing signatures, they urged the E-911 board to have the dispatchers sign the memorandum by next week or be fired.
District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks, near the end of Friday’s meeting, said he believes the five supervisors will vote unanimously to terminate any dispatchers who refuse to sign the memorandum.
“We’re just directing (Givens) to go to them and have them sign,” Brooks said. “If they don’t want to, y’all know what’s going to happen. You know what’s going to happen — 5-0.”
Cooper, speaking after the meeting, said the E-911 board will continue to seek signatures from dispatchers who have not signed the memorandum. He also said he’ll work with the board to tighten its sick leave policy and acknowledged board members thought it a “pretty big coincidence” that six dispatchers called in sick on two consecutive shifts.
Attempts to fire fail
Supervisors discussed the matter for about 30 minutes in executive session Friday morning. When they returned to open session, Sanders moved to fire the four dispatchers who didn’t have doctor’s excuses.
Brooks pushed back, voicing concerns about supervisors going over the top of the E-911 board, which had already decided against firing the dispatchers.
Supervisors appoint the five E-911 board members, but the board is set up to operate autonomously once appointed.
“If something happens that we don’t like what the board does, (are) we gonna usurp their authority?” Brooks asked. “If that’s the case, we don’t need to appoint boards–we just need to be the kingmakers of the entire county.
“I just think that this board is getting on a slippery slope usurping authority,” Brooks continued. “And I would like to see the legislation that created the 911 board that would give us the authority to usurp their authority when they’re an autonomous board.”
Cooper, during the meeting, said he told his board that if it was going to fire the dispatchers, it needed to fire all of the ones who were out, rather than just those without excuses.
“The policy says you don’t have to have one the first time,” Cooper said. “So even with a doctor’s excuse, my opinion to the board was if you are going to terminate one, you terminate all because there’s no discrepancy — I can go get a doctor’s excuse tomorrow, just for anything.
“They weren’t required to have one, so my opinion was if you’re going to start picking and choosing, you better fire them all because if you don’t you could potentially be looking at a discrimination aspect of it,” he added.
Sanders moved to fire the six dispatchers, which was met with immediate protests from Brooks and District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith. Sanders’ motion died without a second.
Smith noted the LSCO investigative report does not definitively indicate the dispatchers conspired to miss shifts.
“We have a report in front of us that gives no indication — regardless of what we think — that anyone did anything wrong,” Smith said. “We have a board that’s been seated to oversee the daily operations of E-911. They made a ruling. Whether we agree or disagree, they made a ruling. … I just think regardless of the assumptions that a lot of people make about what took place, there’s no facts to support it.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.