Civil service system, bickering needs addressing

Ed Howell
Posted 5/25/17

Sit down, folks. I need to have a heart-to-heart with you.

As you recall a few weeks ago, District 4 Walker County Commissioner Steven Aderholt, prevented from speaking at a Walker County Civil Service Board meeting, eventually went online and …

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Civil service system, bickering needs addressing

Posted

Sit down, folks. I need to have a heart-to-heart with you.

As you recall a few weeks ago, District 4 Walker County Commissioner Steven Aderholt, prevented from speaking at a Walker County Civil Service Board meeting, eventually went online and stated (in no uncertain terms) that the law creating the board should be repealed by the Alabama Legislature. He complained about the legal fees of the board, said the system was costing thousands of dollars each year, that standards are outdated and that few such boards existed in the state. He even said he feels the board is in violation of the Open Meetings Law, referring to the fact they deliberate cases like a jury. (We found out later Circuit Judge Hoyt Elliott has already ruled in favor of the board about their fees and meeting in private to deliberate.) He would later complain to me that the system also drags out cases for months and overindulges in grievance complaints.

Enter the chairman of the board, David Kelly, who wanted to respond to the online statements, with board attorney Charles Stephens, which I felt was his right. Essentially, Kelly said the commission is fine when cases go its way, but it complains when it doesn’t. They said commissioners have been overly critical and harsh, leading the board to be cautious itself in response to the commission, and they were critical of the county’s appeals, which they said have run up legal bills, as the county has to pay the board’s legal bills. Kelly and Stephens feel the system is very fair and eliminates the good ol’ boy element in hiring.

And that is the nice way to put all that. It got a lot worse than that. I met for over an hour with Kelly, and then went back to Aderholt for more than an hour. It turned into my observance of the centennial of War World I, as I wandered into No Man’s Land, with bombs and shells bursting all around me.

Added to this, some people are genuinely worried about reporting all of this now. Everyone agreed it needs to be reported, but some worry about how it all will affect the 1-cent sales tax election on Aug. 15. Frankly, I understand and sympathize, but that is the least of my concerns.

The stories I’ve written are problematic to start with, with accusations topping accusations and begging more response. And who is to say what is true in the he-said, he-said of incidents that happened some time ago? And many people now know I’ve been working on this.

With all of that said, I am blowing the whistle right now and telling everyone to get out of the pool. At this point, traditional journalism is not going to help you understand what the devil is going on, so let’s talk in the column.

Above you have seen a short report of what Kelly said, so his response has technically been taken care of. And Aderholt has explained some of his concerns, so that is taken care of. It is also not new that the commission and the board have been at war for some time; we’ve reported that.

I will point out that the current commission only took office in November, and three of them are completely new, so only a couple of commissioners are holdovers. The board also has new members, with one to be appointed, so they are fairly new; Kelly is up for appointment in June, and we don’t know yet how that will go. So most of what we are talking about is stuff that people no longer in office had a hand in. Do I really want to use a broad brush to paint a lot of newcomers who didn’t have much to do with this mess? 

Moreover, I will tell you that the statements from Kelly (with help from Stevens) and Aderholt were rather heated and strong in terms of accusations. It is clear to observers all over the board that this is getting personal between those individuals, although they are genuine in how they feel in hurt, confusion, frustration.

Meanwhile, some observers around them say they (the observers) genuinely want in time to step in and help work out tensions and maybe even bring improvements to the system in reasoned negotiations.

I also have a responsibility to report on what is truthful. I can tell you as far as the 1-cent sales tax increase, that really is a separate issue. To be upfront, I (like others) am increasingly embracing the sales tax, as I see government bankruptcy as being a different animal we can’t afford to deal with, and the extra funding would catch us up in funding other needs. But that doesn’t mean much concerning the Civil Service Board, as $300,000 annually in cost is a drop in the bucket — still expensive, but not much of a concern in the broad picture of expenses.

The real concern is first, how flawed is the county’s hiring system? Both sides have their points, and I think both sides are going to have to give. The system tries to be fair, but it is slow and cumbersome, and the communication between the two sides needs to be improved. Communication and relations between the commissioners and supervisors with their employees also needs to be improved, probably. And if everyone would act like adults on both sides, we can get those legal fees down to a reasonable roar.

And then we need to address my biggest problem in reporting all this. I am dealing with a ton of he-said, he-said issues, and events that happened in the past, sometimes years ago. What is true and what is not? So much of this is simply a mess, and it again boils down to a commissioner and board chairman at war with each other. Others have concerns but they are not at the nuclear level of the two or three people involved.

Certainly, Aderholt is off-message, as the other commissioners are disciplined on the sales tax message. Kelly is probably frustrated not just by Aderholt’s comments, but also actions from the commission over several years. The result is that if I go the full distance to publish this, it will be worse than affecting the referendum (which, frankly, I’ve decided is not something journalists should be trying to affect — we have to report the news as we can and not withhold to affect events). Worse, it will be exploding an issue larger than it should be to include other involved parties close by who are wanting more moderation. And some statements have given me pause as to what is true and what is not (even as I think the men feel they are telling the truth).

We should report on the Civil Service Board as we can regardless of any surrounding issues like the sales tax, for those who want to consider it. At the same time, I can’t ignore the Civil Service Board issue has been raised — but I have to report it responsibly without potential, if probably unintended, slander and inaccuracies (and without the benefit of the larger staff of the New York Times, which I could use about now to check out all the finger-pointing dumped on me). And frankly, I don’t care about whether the tax is approved or scuttled in relation to this — I have to acknowledge I am still sorting out the mess, and the issue is on the backburner for now, making it hard to sort out anyway. Worse, it distracts us all unnecessarily and distorts the true picture of the involvement of other current officials. In short, I’m in a real pickle — and it is not fair to hide it from you. I’m sorry I haven’t cracked this nut for you by now.

For now, the civil service system can be improved and the fighting needs to come to an end. The adults on both sides need to sit down and work this out. However, I’m not throwing away material, and I may come back to the subject, starting from scratch. I want to report on this responsibly, not recklessly. I may have to delay until I do, but I wanted to make you aware of what I basically know. It is not going away soon — and I hope wiser heads work this out, as the frustrations of a select few people cannot jeopardize the hiring process and financial future of Walker County.

Ed Howell is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s news editor.