By Erica Thomas, managing editor
TRUSSVILLE — A Jefferson County judge ruled in favor of the Jefferson County Personnel Board after over a year and a half of back-and-forth between the board and the city of Trussville.
The legal battle began in April of 2019 when the city passed an ordinance (2019-020 (ADM), to create its own civil service system for city employees and to hire its own Director of Personnel. This, after decades of operating under the Jefferson County Personnel Board. According to court documents, the city notified the JCPB of its intentions.
Peggy Polk was appointed to the position of Director of Personnel and the city moved forward with its own civil service system by gathering resumes for at least one job opening and by approving a 2% cost-of-living adjustment for FY-2019.
On Sept. 9, 2019, the city filed for a declaratory judgment on the matter, in the Circuit Court of Jefferson County. The city wanted approval for the separation from the Jefferson County Personnel Board. In court documents, the city cited Alabama Act No. 1945-248, also known as the “Enabling Act.” The act states that municipalities, whose corporate limits lie wholly within Jefferson County and have a population of more than 5,000 people, are required to operate under the Jefferson County Personnel Board.
The city also cited an opinion given by the Attorney General’s Office in June 2019, stating the city did not have to operate with the JCPB because part of the municipality is in St. Clair County. Attorney General Steve Marshall also said in the opinion that over the years, the city of Trussville has not adopted resolutions electing to come under the provisions of the JCPB after annexations into parts of St. Clair County. That is important because part of the Enabling Act required cities to do so, in order to stay with the JCPB. The AG’s opinion also echoed what the city of Trussville’s ordinance to create the civil service system stated. In reference to the vested rights of current employees, the ordinance would require that current employees’ rights (pay, vacation, retirement, etc.) would be continued under the new system (Section VIII (b).
Both parties also debated some of the language and purpose of the Enabling Act and repeals made to it.
Polk has since retired and Mandy Dixon was named Director of Human Resources for the city of Trussville. Trussville has also been operating under the Jefferson County Personnel Board.
In court documents, Dixon said the JCPB hiring process is unclear and limits the talent pool when the city is in need of hiring for various positions. She also said the process for offering promotions to existing employees is often made difficult and can take up to two years.
Fire Chief Tim Shotts also complained in a court filing saying that the Board made promotions and hiring difficult.
“We want the best candidate, not the least common denominator,” Shotts stated.
Police Chief Eric Rush said in an affidavit that issues regarding the personnel board are “numerous.”
“The inadequacies of the board hinder my ability to do my job to the standard that is representative of the City of Trussville,” Rush stated.
Rush said the recruitment of qualified police officers has been an issue. In fact, he said the board has sent him candidates that have outstanding warrants for their arrest or felony convictions that prevent them from carrying a firearm.
When asked about that complaint during a deposition, Jefferson County Personnel Director Lorren Oliver said the board does not have the ability to search for the criminal history of applicants through the NCIC (National Crime Information Center). He said that each police department is responsible for doing so before hiring.
Mayor Buddy Choat said in a deposition that he wants the best for the city and he believes the city having its own personnel board would benefit the citizens of Trussville. He also said monies spent on the personnel board would be better justified if they were spent on the city’s own board.
According to Oliver, the city pays the personnel board around $210,000 a year for services that include vetting potential employees, training employees and human resources duties. Oliver believes the city of Trussville is not equipped to handle the hiring and operations of its own employees.
“By that, I mean hiring people that don’t meet the appropriate qualifications for the positions and failing to provide the appropriate due processes to people in the system,” said Oliver in 2019 when asked about the lawsuit.
In court documents, the city responded to negative allegations about its standards for employment. The city’s civil service ordinance requires an examination process for some job applicants and it requires city leaders and employees to follow policies and procedures backed by state and federal guidelines. But, Oliver said in 2019 that policy wasn’t the only concern he had over the city hiring its own employees.
“With the city’s new system, issues of race and gender discrimination would likely resurface,” said Oliver. “Individuals that are selected to perform work in the merit system meet well-developed, validated, legally defensible standards for employment. That’s one of the first things that would be jeopardized because, with all due respect, that capability does not exist in the city of Trussville.”
Jefferson County Circuit Judge Pat Ballard ruled on Tuesday, April 27, 2021, that the city of Trussville does not have the right to leave the Jefferson County Personnel Board and form its own board.
Trussville City Attorney Rick Stotser said Tuesday evening that the city is planning to appeal the ruling. He said he expects the city to win in the end.
Choat said the verdict was what the city expected. He said the ruling was based on the fact that when the city entered into an agreement with the personnel board in 1991, the city was already in two counties.
“The statute states that the city shall pass a resolution,” said Choat. “But we never signed one and even the attorneys with the personnel board agreed that we never signed one. But Judge Ballard took the settlement as just as good as a resolution. So, we’re going to appeal it and we will see what happens.”