Saying they hoped it would close the book on a contentious chapter for the county, three commissioners voted down a proposal for an independent investigation into the work environment at the county’s 911 call center.
The discussion was truncated, as Chairman Eric Maxwell, after missing multiple meetings due to medical issues, was under doctor’s orders to stay no later than 9:30 p.m.
Commissioner Steve Brown, who has driven the push to look into the center, led off by reading a lengthy written statement.
“It is not the function of the Board of Commissioners to manage the day-to-day business of the county government,” he said, noting commissioners have minimal exposure to the normal workings within departments. “However, when an issue escalates to a certain magnitude, either through public outrage or institutional collapse, it is imperative that the commissioners play an active role in the process.”
He likened it to other instances during his time with the county when staff proved the importance of transparency and accountability, citing a former county attorney removing and wiping clean the hard drive of his work computer when he was suspected of wrongdoing, He went into more detail regarding the water quality crisis several years ago. Water system leadership was initially trusted to fix the problems with water odor and taste.
“Unfortunately, water system leadership failed to give an honest appraisal of the situation, and the problems grew, and the public became more enraged,” he recounted. “Because the system was failing, I felt that I had no choice but to get involved. The findings were shocking, the system director was in denial, and the state government had to become heavily involved as well.”
Brown expressed hope that the lessons learned could be applied to the 911 call center.
Testimony related to a February 2017 incident said 911 Director Bernard “Buster” Brown verbally assaulted and began to physically engage a 911 supervisor. He received a written reprimand for the incident. Commissioner Brown referenced an audio recording wherein Human Resources Director Lewis Patterson acknowledged the bad behavior of Director Brown with regards to work environment, and said he “was in the process of changing.”
Brown raised issues with several parts of the investigation.
Over the summer, two supervisors and one communications officer were terminated before being re-hired with back pay and allowed to resign if they agreed to not sue the county. On June 1, 2017, County Administrator Steve Rapson, Patterson, and several 911 center personnel were all in the same room together, allowing those speaking to hear each others’ testimony instead of being interviewed alone regarding the three.
“The lack of separation ruins the credibility, and it should be noted that none of the witnesses corroborating the testimony of the three were asked to be present at this meeting. Additionally, none of the three accused were given the opportunity to represent themselves or have a representative present in that meeting. This kangaroo court atmosphere is discriminatory and poor judicial practice.”
Having been chastised by some fellow commissioners for accessing and sharing certain files, Brown again referred to the legal opinion from County Attorney Dennis Davenport that Brown is entitled access to government personnel records, as long as certain pieces of information are redacted.
Brown noted several documents that he was not given initially, including a a summary of call center issues from an EAP representative and resignation letters that three former staff members signed with no-lawsuit agreements. Brown did not know about those until he was contacted by a reporter asking him for comment about it.
“My guess is there are still some important documents that are not being turned over related to the 911 call center crisis,” he said. “I can say with great authority that when government suppresses public speech and public access to government records, the disdain for government is amplified. The lack of responsiveness on turning over documents to elected officials is disgraceful.”
Commissioner Brown also referenced 911 Director Brown filing a complaint against him.
“I thought the attempt at intimidation in the form of a grievance from the 911 call center director asking for an official censure of me for accessing public government documents and letting the citizens of Fayette County know what is written on them was also an indicator of problems,” he said.
“It appears the county administrator and human resources director are enabling (Buster) Browns’ behavior by not taking any significant corrective action,” he said. “Failing to turnover significant documents is also a red flag.”
Commissioner Brown asked for support in hiring an independent, third party to investigate the work environment at the center, both now and at the time of the peak turmoil.
“The evidence and testimony certainly provide ample fuel for an independent investigation,” he said.
“I ask for the independent investigation so that we can have a clear, impartial record of what has transpired. The public needs to know. The Board of Commissioners needs to know.”
Brown said that he did not doubt that the environment may be improved now, but in light of the testimony he read, he felt it warranted a deeper look.
“If half of it is true, there was a real bad situation there.”
Commissioner Charles Rousseau supported Brown’s call for an investigation.
“I don’t like what went on at 911, and I don’t know the answer (to what happened there) 100 percent,” Rousseau said, saying the truth is somewhere in the middle of the two sides. “To put it to rest, in my humble opinion, is to take it out of the hands of an internal system that seems to have maybe done a decent job or maybe not done a decent job.
“I’m really concerned that we may be missing an opportunity to put it to bed.”
After Brown’s motion, Chairman Maxwell opened his comments by polling the audience in a curious manner that did not sit well with Rousseau. Maxwell asked “all those that support Buster Brown” in the audience to stand, then asked the same of those who “don’t support Buster Brown.”
“I think it’s very dangerous the methodology that is being used as though this is a referendum on an individual. It’s unfair, blatantly unfair, to have people say you support Director Brown or not support him,” said Rousseau. “That’s not what is at stake here. What is at stake is us doing an assessment of this environment that has caused all of this angst. While it is uncomfortable, it is part of our responsibility.
“My position on this particular subject matter has nothing to do with the support or lack thereof of the job that you all do (at 911), it’s not the issue at hand for me. It’s not a referendum on whether or not I like somebody, let’s get that clear. We have a moral obligation to oversee the wellbeing of this county.”
Maxwell and commissioners Charles Oddo and Randy Ognio were unswayed. They had already made up their minds as each declared their intention to vote against the investigation. Ognio would make the rare procedural move to “call the question,” forcing a vote and closing the discussion without public comment. Ognio later said he did it because he wanted to ensure Maxwell could vote before he had to leave.
While the full board was unaware of the problems at the center and the investigation, Maxwell noted he had been in the loop for some time and heard nothing new from Brown’s remarks.
“What I heard was the same thing I’ve known about for literally a year,” he said, noting that there may have been additional hearsay that he would be open to read. “Maybe you can get me to change my mind, but I see no need to do an independent investigation.”
Because the reports of the current environment at the center are positive, they saw no need to dig in with an investigation.
“I personally don’t see any reason to continue this. I think that staff has done a marvelous job in a very difficult time, and that starts from the top down,” said Oddo. “This process has been resolved. I have heard nothing about Director Brown negative since his reprimand, and I’d say everybody is entitled to a mistake.”
Ognio labeled the complaints as those of disgruntled ex-employees.
“I have a measurement of success when you have reprimands or whatever, and I measure that success by the results, and boy we’ve got really good results out of what was done, and the 911 center is in real good shape,” said Ognio. “I don’t see why you would do an investigation when what you have works so well.”
With the 911 discussion never opened up to public comment, several instead took to the mike in the end-of-meeting public comment section.
Bonnie Williamson pleaded for a chance to know the truth one way or the other, and an independent investigation would be how.
“If Buster is the problem, I want to know. If he’s not the problem, I want to know,” she said.
Terrence Williamson, President of the Fayette County Branch of the NAACP, called them to the carpet for their willingness to ignore past problems for current results.
“What you have just said is it’s alright to do whatever it is you want to do as long as the end result is that we’re going to get to point Z. That is not how you’re supposed to run government,” he said. “It matters. The process and the policy and the procedure matters. Don’t you dare stand up there on that podium and say it doesn’t matter what transpired in the past. That is not you. That is not who our leaders are meant to be.
“Right now, I do not trust what this commission has done. You have lost my trust,” he said. “And I say that with (assuredness) that I will do everything that I can to make sure that we get to the bottom of what transpired, and it will come out and it will not be swept under the table.”
As part of an organized effort to speak in support of the call center, and Director Brown in particular, several 911 employees again took to the microphone.
“I need somebody who can run this center the best way possible, and it is that man over there, Buster Brown,” said Kyle Turner. “I don’t like everything about Buster Brown, but he is taking our center in a totally new direction, and it’s the direction it needs to go in.”
Sharon Battle agreed that the environment has changed for the positive, and the staff would not shy away from another investigation.
“We are not working under duress by any means at the 911 center. We’re all happy. We’re all family,” she said. “If you feel like you need to change your mind because that’s what the public wants, we’re not afraid of an investigation.”
Following shots fired from Ognio’s wife and Oddo’s brother, Brown reiterated that he pushed for an investigation out of his duty to the county following allegations from over a dozen people.
“I was presented with a long list of significant allegations, and I feel compelled to look into those allegations,” he said, noting that he did not hold the claims as the gospel truth, but “I would like somebody to look into it and see if there’s truth to it.”