Controversial Hires, Fires Dominate Covington Commission Meeting
Tuesday night's Covington City Commission meeting began with an apology.
"Hopefully we can get on a better track," Mayor Sherry Carran told the crowd, referencing the previous meeting's tense tone, lengthy remarks during public comments, and outbursts from those in attendance. "It was a hard meeting."
But two of the issues that caused contention between the public and city leadership and between members of the city commission were back on the table at this meeting as well and while most of the meeting was as focused and pleasant as can be expected, heated moments arose again.
"I think we're all very familiar with this item," City Manager Larry Klein said as item number one from the agenda was called for approval: the creation of a municipal specialist position within the department of public improvements. Item number two set the position's salary. Item number nineteen offered the job to Crystal Courtney.
All three were approved by votes of 3-2.
At the previous meeting, the issue of hiring Courtney was tabled after Commissioner Michelle Williams raised concerns that the position was not properly advertised to receive applications from the public. The city agreed to post the job listing on its website, online job searches, and the newspaper.
Twelve applications were received and according to Klein, only Courtney met the minimum qualifications and only she was interviewed.
Williams was not convinced. "It has been apparent that they've been trying to hire this person since September no matter what we do or say," she said. Courtney was originally up for hire in September in a position titled "arborist" but the previous commission did not allow a vote on it, citing recent layoffs and restructuring in other departments.
Courtney previously worked for the city in a seasonal part-time position but has not been on the city's payroll since December.
One of the unique qualifications called for in the municipal specialist position is a certification in pesticides.
Williams and Commissioner Mildred Rains voted against everything related to Courtney's hiring (she'll make $42,500 a year), including item number twenty which hired three new municipal groundsworkers that will work directly under the municipal specialist.
"To me, public safety comes first," Rains said. "We could have hired four police officers or four firefighters."
Chad Hyland, Gene Koehl, and Francis Coogan were hired Tuesday by a vote of 3-2 at salaries of $40,500. They will be members of the local American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union.
Their jobs were also on the agenda of the previous meeting but were also tabled so that they could be advertised to the public. Twenty-nine applications came in, eleven were qualified, seven were interviewed, and the three were hired.
While Commissioner Steve Frank joined Mayor Carran and Commissioner Chuck Eilerman in approving the hires, he shared Williams' concerns that the positions were not advertised at a proper length.
"The whole point is there could have been someone even more qualified than this lady and I don't know if opening this up for a week caught the eye of this person," Frank said. "This practice has to stop. If we kept it open a few more weeks I'm sure the same name would end up on top."
"I think she's very well qualified," Eilerman said, arguing that there have been misconceptions about the municipal specialist position. "This is a particularly important position," he said, adding that Courtney's job will not be to go out and "cultivate exotic lilacs".
"This department has been severely undermanned with a tremendous backup of a hundred orders. It's one one-thousandth of our budget. We can walk and chew gum at the same time and have a balanced city budget."
Frank agreed that the new hire "doesn't blow the budget" repeating his theme from the previous meeting that "elections have consequences". "This is something Mayor Carran is close to," he said.
"The argument is we can't hire any more firefighters because of the budget," Williams countered, pointing out that at the previous meeting several employees in the finance department received pay increases of $8,000 when their positions were reclassified during a restructuring of that department.
With the four new hires on board, the city commission unanimously approved the crew's first task: landscaping Martin Luther King Boulevard's median. The city hired a consultant to design new landscaping and an irrigation system. Work will begin later this spring or early summer.
New agreement possibly reached with firefighters union
One reason the hiring of new employees in the department of public improvements was controversial, despite the well-documented evidence that the department is severely undermanned and that the city's gateways and infrastructure are in serious need of attention, is that residents are growing vocal again about another undermanned department: Covington Fire.
Emotions have been particularly high at the past two meetings surrounding this issue because of a fire in the Eastside neighborhood that left a 67-year old woman dead. Commissioner Williams, firefighters, and neighbors have argued that the closest pumped, at Scott Boulevard & Robbins Street, would have been best to serve the fire that killed Joan Herron.
Instead, Pumper One as it's known, was taken out of service as a cost saving measure in late 2011. The closest pumper to the neighborhood is a few more blocks away on Holman Street.
City leaders have argued that there is still not enough money available to return firefighter staffing to thirty per day (from the reduced twenty-seven per day on staff now) to put Pumper One back into full-time service.
However, Assistant City Manager and City Solicitor Frank Warnock announced at the meeting that the city and leaders of Local 38 of the International Association of Firefighters have reached an agreement that would place Pumper One back on track ten percent of the time.
That ten percent would arrive on the occasions that daily staffing levels reach thirty or more due to overlapping schedules. Firefighters who would typically be on an ambulance would be moved to the pumper.
Williams, who appeared on multiple local TV newscasts and rallied her Eastside neighbors in support of restoring Pumper One, took to Twitter after Tuesday's meeting. "Thank you Covington for supporting our firefighters. We won! Pumper One is back!"
Other details on the agreement between the city and the union (which the commission passed unanimously) were not made public. Warnock said that union leaders have yet to take the issue back to their members and that it would be premature to release the information. Local 38 will vote soon. "This is not a done deal," Warnock warned.
Part of the deal addresses promotions that were made unavailable when nine veteran firefighter positions were eliminated through attrition last year. "That cost firefighters the chance to move up," Warnock said.
"It gives us stability in our environment," firefighter and Local 38 member Mike Clendenen said to the commission. "It helps keep our crew's integrity and keeps our crews safer and our citizens safer."
Several residents spoke at the meeting in support of adding more firefighters while a couple others spoke in favor of the direction the city is moving in with focusing on infrastructure needs before replenishing the fire department's staffing levels.
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News