The Lowndes County E-911 board is no more.
County supervisors voted 4-1 to dissolve the board Monday morning, with Jeff Smith, of District 4, opposing. The action is effective immediately.
The board, which was appointed by supervisors but operated autonomously, was composed of five members, each representing a supervisor’s district — John Hays for District 1; Chris Griffin for District 2; Rodney Sullivan for District 3; Eric Thomas for District 4; and Keith Worshaim for District 5.
E-911 will now fall under the county emergency services department, which county employee Cindy Lawrence directs. Supervisors agreed Monday to raise Lawrence’s salary to $65,000 — a $14,000 increase — to accommodate the added responsibility of managing the 17-employee dispatch center.
It’s currently unclear what role E-911 Director Sholanda Givens will play in the new emergency services department. County Administrator Ralph Billingsley said he will meet with Givens and Lawrence to determine the department’s structure.
The new structure will centralize command of the E-911 services with emergency management. Both services, along with county fire services, are already located in the county’s new $2 million E-911 center, which opened last year.
Harry Sanders, board of supervisors president, said he believes the move will strengthen the new department.
“I don’t think it could be anything but an improvement,” he said.
Reasons for vote
The supervisors’ vote on Monday reflected their dissatisfaction with how the board handled an issue where they believe dispatchers systematically called in sick to protest not getting pay raises when others did.
Six total dispatchers called in sick on two consecutive shifts in April, forcing Givens and another dispatcher to man both shifts short-handed. Dispatchers on call for those shifts in case of a shortage failed to answer the phone.
The E-911 board decided not to fire the dispatchers and instead required all 17 employees to sign a memorandum acknowledging such protest behavior was unacceptable.
Initially, four dispatchers did not sign the memorandum when they first had the opportunity, prompting supervisors to instruct the E-911 board to gather those signatures or fire the employees. Chris Griffin told The Dispatch on Friday all dispatchers had signed the memorandum.
Sanders said issues at the E-911 center have built up over time, and said the board failed to deal with them before last month’s issue arose.
“If they had taken care of business through the years — this is not something that just raised its ugly head two weeks ago,” Sanders said. “This is something that’s been going on for a while.
“I don’t want to point fingers, but there’s some troublemakers over there sitting at 911 causing problems,” he continued. “Cindy Lawrence is supposed to get over there and straighten it out ’cause the doggone 911 board refused to do it.”
District 2 Supervisor Bill Brigham, who moved to dissolve the E-911 board that has operated for more than 20 years, insisted the board’s handling of the missing dispatchers didn’t prompt him to bring the matter before his fellow supervisors. Instead, he said, he found it was more efficient to move the E-911 under emergency services.
“All of that brought this to the surface,” Brigham said. “The primary reason for joining the two together is it doesn’t need to be but one department. My thinking is to bring it under one director. That’s the way our other departments are run and we feel that’s where we need to get it.”
Smith opposed Monday’s vote saying he believed supervisors were moving too quickly to eliminate the board. He suggested instead that supervisors gather stakeholders to better get an idea of the specific issues within the 911 department.
“We may still end up where we are, but I just haven’t heard enough today to support it,” Smith said.
Thomas, who is seeking election to the Columbus city council’s Ward 2 seat, said he was disappointed in the supervisors’ vote. He said the E-911 board’s decision not to fire the dispatchers was in keeping with its policy, which allows workers to miss a day sick without requiring a doctor’s excuse.
He also noted the E-911 board didn’t get a chance to meet and potentially strengthen its policies. The board’s next regular meeting would have been on May 9.
“We made a decision based on the facts,” Thomas said. “Because they didn’t agree with it, they decided to dissolve the board. I really don’t think that’s fair to us as a board.”
Griffin called the board’s dissolution “wonderful news” and said he felt the move would be good for E-911 in the long run.
“We as a 911 board had no authority,” Griffin said. “We couldn’t recommend pay raises to 911 — we couldn’t do anything. Everything goes through the board of supervisors.
“I think its all-around better for the county, especially with Cindy Lawrence heading it up,” he later added.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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