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Civil Service Board washes hands of academy closure

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Former Clayton Regional Law Enforcement Academy Director Jeff Turner, as well as five other training officers whose jobs were eliminated by the Board of Commissioners (BOC), will likely never have a chance to raise their concerns before the Civil Service Board.

During a special called meeting on Tuesday, the Clayton County Civil Service Board opted not to interfere in the BOC's June 29 decision to eliminate the academy, and its employees' positions. Rather than vote on whether to approve the elimination of the six training officer positions, the board decided to remove the item from the agenda entirely, citing Civil Service Board rules stating that the board's realm of influence applies to situations in which employees have been suspended, demoted, or dismissed.

"I make a motion that the Civil Service Board finds and decides, that based on the [civil service] rules 9.201 and 9.202, that [approving the elimination of the police academy positions] does not apply," said board member, Gbenga Osagie, on Tuesday. Following Osagie's motion, the five-member board voted unanimously to strike the item from the agenda.

Following the meeting, Civil Service Board Chairman Larry A. Bartlett said that "this issue will not come back before the board."

The decision came following the board's Aug. 4 meeting, in which it was asked to deal with the same agenda item. During that meeting, the board decided to table the matter and acquire the counsel of an attorney, not employed by the county, before making a decision.

In December, following a public hearing in which the BOC accused Turner of mismanaging the police department, the commission removed Turner as the county's police chief and assigned him to head the police academy. At the same time, the BOC voted to make the academy it's own department, separate from the police department.

On Aug. 6, the police academy was officially closed and the jobs of Turner and five other training officers were eliminated.

On Tuesday, outside-attorney Joe Harris advised the board during two separate executive sessions, each lasting an hour. Turner, the county's former police chief, was present at the meeting, and while a hearing was not scheduled, the board gave lawyers representing Turner and the county 15 minutes to express their viewpoints.

Darren Horvath, an attorney representing the county, argued that the Civil Service Board's powers were inapplicable because the BOC has the sovereign right to make budgetary decisions for the county, including staff reductions.

"I laud the [Civil Service] board for not wanting to rubber stamp the ruling of the board [BOC]," he said. However, "the purpose of the Civil Service Board is not to second-guess budget decisions of the board. This would amount to the board having the power of veto. It's a slippery path."

Turner's attorney, Bill Atkins, said the BOC's actions amounted to "subterfuge" and promotes a culture in which commissioners can remove unwanted employees without discretion, by simply removing their line item from the budget.

"This is one of the most remarkable slights of hand I have heard in a long time," Atkins said. "They [the BOC] don't want this man to ever, ever have the opportunity to grieve one iota of what has happened to him over the past eight months. I beg you to hear anything. You exist to protect employees from exactly these kind of hijinks.

"On Friday [Aug. 6], they told my client to turn in his stuff," Atkins added. "They [the BOC] have told you what they think of your role," Atkins told the Civil Service Board. "You're being told that you don't have the authority."

Civil Service Board members expressed reservations following their decision to drop the matter on Tuesday. "The civil service board didn't ask for this to be put on our agenda," said board member, J. Mark Trimble. "Evidently, somebody in county government felt that the rules do apply, therefore, it was put on our agenda."

"The rules are the rules ... we have to take them at face value," said board member, Troyce Lancaster. "However, I feel like there have been loopholes used to get around some of this, and actions have been taken against county employees."

"There's been a great injustice done here," said board member, Lori Favre.

"Even though the rules say this, we have let down some employees," Civil Service Board Chairman Bartlett said.

Following the Civil Service Board's decision, Atkins said, "It's a disappointing day in Clayton County."

BOC Vice Chairman Wole Ralph, who voted in favor of the elimination of the police academy, said the "law is clear" about the Civil Service Board's inability to weigh in on that particular issue.

"I believe the Civil Service Board has a role to play when it comes to demotions, loss of pay, or firings," he said. "The county didn't create the Civil Service Board, the state legislature did," said Ralph.

"The state legislature defines their responsibilities. The board [of commissioners] has the responsibility for being fiscally responsible for the taxpayer's dollars, and that includes any staff reductions due to budget constraints ... the elimination of the regional police academy was one of them," Ralph said.

"The [police academy] building was very expensive to maintain," said District 1 Commissioner Sonna Singleton. "We've had to lay off people in other areas of the county as well. Again, the Civil Service Board ... that is not their responsibility to co-sign on budgetary decisions we make."

BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell, and Commissioners Michael Edmondson and Gail Hambrick could not be reached for comment osn Wednesday.