Following the termination of four Lion Hills Club employees in early March and conflicting information on why they were let go, Lowndes County trustees on the board of East Mississippi Community College sought answers.
But the attempts to discuss the firing with all board members were to no avail, said Joe Max Higgins, Golden Triangle LINK CEO and the latest appointee to the EMCC board.
Higgins told The Dispatch he made several unsuccessful attempts to discuss the matter in an executive session during the board’s April monthly meeting, which took place Monday night. The motion to enter a closed session, he said, fell short of votes.
“I’m very disturbed,” Higgins said. “I don’t know what’s going on and I was not allowed to know what’s going on.”
Higgins’ inquiries came after The Dispatch reported in March conflicting accounts over the firing of four Lion Hills Center employees, including the head chef, sous chef, event coordinator and assistant event coordinator. EMCC has owned the former Columbus Country Club since 2012.
EMCC officials said the four were let go as a cost-saving measure. Two of the four ex-employees, however, previously told The Dispatch they were fired for “misconduct” and without notice. A letter addressed to the ex-employees at the time, signed by EMCC President Scott Alsobrooks, cited “acts constituting malfeasance, inefficiency, insubordination and/or other misconduct or omission.”
“The letter contradicts with what I and the board were told,” Higgins said. “Both of those (accounts) can’t be true.”
One of the ex-employees, who spoke on the condition of their name not being published, told The Dispatch the four employees were told to collect their personal belongings immediately and were escorted out by security the day they were fired.
“We literally had no idea (why),” the former employee said Tuesday.
“People need to know that this is what they did to people,” she added. “One of these (ex-employees) is about to give birth, another one of the people has a family and a newly renovated house. It’s just ridiculous. They’ve been there for years.”
Higgins said in March he wanted to discuss the issue in April’s meeting, according to his emails to EMCC attorney Michelle Easterling and Alsobrooks. He sent them another email April 2 pushing for a board-wide discussion.
“This needs to be on the agenda,” he wrote.
“Agreed!!!!” echoed Greg Stewart, the other Lowndes County trustee on the board.
Easterling recommended a discussion with four or five EMCC board members and staff, but Higgins disagreed.
“These issues should be discussed by (the) entire board, not four or five folks. That’s what causes problems,” Higgins wrote back.
Declaring a closed session requires 60 percent of the board votes, according to board policies. The EMCC board is made up of 12 members. During the Monday meeting, Higgins and Stewart were the only two voting in favor.
Alsobrooks said he cannot discuss personnel matters and it was up to the board to decide whether to enter a closed session. But the board’s reluctance to do so, he said, may be because of the online nature of the meeting during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They voted not to do it at this time. I think they probably will at some point,” he said. “We are having to do things over (the) telephone and Zoom … and a lot of people are not comfortable with that.”
Spencer Broocks, board member from Oktibbeha County, cited the same reason in an email to The Dispatch.
“Due to the meeting being livestreamed on YouTube and each board member being in places where confidentiality couldn’t be confirmed,” he said, “I did not feel comfortable going into an executive session without being at a meeting in person.”
Yue Stella Yu was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.