Fayette County 911 communications center director Bernard “Buster” Brown, right, listens as former employees of his communications team make public comments alleging he created a hostile work environment during a Fayette County commissioners meeting, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ

Fayette 911 center controversy debated in marathon meeting

Fayette County administrators are standing behind their embattled 911 director, Bernard “Buster” Brown following a 7-hour meeting Thursday where current 911 employees defended him against charges of harassment.

Others, including former center employees, restated their complaints against Brown, signaling the controversy is not over yet.

The meeting came amid complaints from former 911 employees of harassing and profane behavior by Brown. The accusations have roiled county government for months, stoked in part by division among county commissioners and staff on how or whether to investigate.

Seventeen uniformed 911 center employees attended the meeting in support of Brown, several of whom spoke in his defense and attacked his accusers, often to loud applause.

“Buster is a very caring manager on a day-to-day basis,” said 911 Supervisor Heather Brown, also no relation. “Fayette County 911 is moving forward. The county citizens should be very proud of the men and women who are working there.”

The allegations against Brown and the unveiling of months of discord in the center caught some commissioners unprepared. Commissioner Steve Brown, no relation to the 911 director, spent weeks poring over personnel files and investigative notes and wants the board to launch an independent investigation, but the board tabled that request until a later meeting.

Local activist Martine Yancy urged commissioners to act.

“Now is the time to fix it,” she said. “When you know that you have a loose cannon in your department you are liable when it explodes.”

Brown received a written reprimand last February after a profanity-laced tirade directed at a female supervisor. Notes from a human resources investigation last year into Bernard Brown’s conduct indicated a pattern of inappropriate behavior.

County Manager Steve Rapson confirmed that a discrimination complaint has been filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding the 911 center, but he gave no further details.

Terrence Williamson, president of the Fayette County NAACP, said his organization became aware of the allegations against Brown last summer when three employees who had been fired by Brown came to them with complaints. Williamson said his organization was preparing to file a federal discrimination complaint when the women accepted a deal offered by Rapson to resign with severance pay and keep their 911 certification.

“Our expectation was that the county administrator and commissioners would follow up with appropriate action to address the underlying faults. In the intervening months apparently those expectations did not come to pass,” Williamson said.

Employees of the Fayette County 911 communications center sit together in support of their director, Bernard “Buster” Brown, during a Fayette County commissioners meeting, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

‘No crisis in 911’

Most of the comment during Thursday’s meeting came from county employees, most of whom lined up to defend Rapson, Bernard Brown or their own job performance. Two former 911 center employees, one of whom flew in from Texas to attend the meeting, restated their complaints against their former boss.

“I do hope you open an independent investigation, so you can learn the facts,” said former 911 supervisor Nicole Smith, who was among those who first aired complaints against Bernard Brown at a commissioners’ meeting in December.

Brown spent the evening sitting behind Rapson and county attorney Dennis Davenport. He left quickly after the meeting and declined to answer questions.

While many of Brown’s supporters lavished unreserved praise on their boss, others painted a picture of a manager in transition.

“Buster is widely known to be an animated person,” said Katie Vogt, a member of Brown’s management staff. Brown as no “inside voice,” she said.

Vogt acknowledged that Brown had been disciplined for berating a subordinate but she said she had seen a change in him over the past year and had witnessed “no further outbursts aimed at employees.”

“There is no ongoing crisis in 911,” added Sharon Battle, another of Brown’s administrators.

Battle offered perhaps the most nuanced portrait of Brown, even acknowledging the truth to some of the allegations against him.

“Did Director Brown have a bad day and yell and curse at employees? Yes,” she said. “That is not a crisis.”

Battle said turnover went up under Brown, but only by a few employees compared to the prior administration.

Former Fayette County 911 Communications center supervisor Nicole Smith gives public comment during a Fayette County commissioners meeting, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. Smith said current director Bernard “Buster” Brown created a hostile work environment in the center. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

No further investigation, county says

The county released turnover statistics in the center prior to the meeting showing that 33 employees have left the center — either through resignation, termination or retirement — in the two and half years since Brown took the position. That’s nearly a complete turnover for the center, but not unprecedented. Thirty employees left in the two and half years prior to Brown’s arrival.

What is notable is that most of the people who left during tenure were more seasoned employees, a difference from the turnover prior to his arrival.

Hours of public accusations and airing of grievances left Davenport, the county attorney, visibly disturbed. “None of this has been prudent,” he said.

At the end of the meeting, Rapson said he had no plans for further investigation into Bernard Brown’s claimed past behavior, chalking much of it up to cultural differences into how his “hands-on” management style is perceived.

“It depends on how you feel about that. My family would be perfectly fine with some of the things he’s doing because we tend to be kind of a loud,” he said. “My wife’s family is more Southern, so she would probably take offense at somebody who’s loud a lot.”

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