Watchdog: Fayette board angry over member’s release of public records

Feb 01, 2018
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Fayette County commissioner Steve Brown debates with his colleagues about access to personnel records during a special called open meeting at the Fayette County administrative complex, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018. The special meeting was called to question Commissioner Steve Brown’s access to the personnel file of the county 911 director. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Simmering concerns over the management of the Fayette County 911 Center burst out this week in an extraordinary meeting of the Board of Commissioners, with one commissioner accusing county officials of a cover up.

Commissioners called the meeting to condemn Commissioner Steve Brown for releasing information to the media documenting reports of harassment and racially questionable language among managers at the center. The documents show high-level terminations last summer and a written reprimand given to the center director last February.

At least two commissioners were upset that Brown had independently viewed the personnel file of Bernard “Buster” Brown, director of the county’s 911 call center.

Brown, who represents Peachtree City, accused his fellow commissioners of trying to withhold information from the public with “Gestapo” tactics.

“If you want to somehow obstruct (elected officials’) ability to look at government documents, then we’re in trouble,” he said.

I got interested in the case and attended Wednesday’s meeting because governments are supposed to be transparent about the public’s business, and problems with the agency responsible for handling public safety calls strikes me as something folks ought to know about.

Commissioner Brown said he was investigating a series of incidents at the center over the past year that resulted in termination of two shift supervisors and other employees amid allegations by employees of a hostile work environment. Brown said he and other board members were unaware of the problems until a former employee brought them out during the public comment period of a meeting in December.

Nicole Smith, a former 911 supervisor who worked 17 years for the county before resigning, told commissioners at that meeting that Bernard Brown had created a hostile work environment at the center since arriving in 2015. She accused Brown of making inappropriate comments to female employees and screaming at them while they were answering emergency calls.

“In the process of working a house fire, I was getting chewed out at my console position,” Smith said. “Human resources knew about it, nothing was done.”

County records show Bernard Brown was given a written warning for a Feb. 9 confrontation with a supervisor where the he reportedly “became very agitated and used profanity several times.”

“We never heard a word about it,” Steve Brown said. The silence is more aggravating, he said, because commissioners were asked to approve higher pay for 911 operators to alleviate high turnover in the center.

“We had no idea this other (stuff) was going on,” he said.

Fayette County vice chairman Randy Ognio debates with his colleagues about access to personnel records during a special called open meeting at the Fayette County administrative complex, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018. The special meeting was called to question Commissioner Steve Brown’s access to the personnel file of the county 911 director. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Threats and intimidation

According to county records, call center employees told County Administrator Steve Rapson and Human Resources Director Lewis Patterson they were threatened and harassed by two supervisors and another call center officer. A June 21 report on the investigation said employees complained of “an atmosphere that is plagued by low morale, negativity and intimidation.”

According to the report, the three women under investigation warned trainees not to report policy violations to their superiors and that they needed “to remember that snitches get stitches.”

One trainee reported she “did not perceive the statement to be made in a joking manner, but perceived it as a threat to her personal safety.”

The women also were accused of making racially charged comments about white people and police officers, charges they denied. In interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the women said they found themselves under investigation only after they complained about Bernard Brown’s management of the center.

All three were terminated, but on appeal they were allowed to voluntarily resign their positions, keeping their certifications, in exchange for a written agreement not to sue the county, according to the women interviewed by the AJC.

Commissioner Chairman Eric Maxwell, who was not at Wednesday’s meeting, said he was aware of the problems within the call center and he received an email about the human resources investigation last summer. That was something he let the county manager handle, he said.

“I didn’t get into the weeds with that,” he said. “I knew that was going on. I knew, generally, there was some bad language between the department head and the employees. I knew there were some things that were racially sensitive that were being said among the employees, some of whom were supervisors.”

He said he knew a report was written about it and given to Rapson. “I haven’t read it,” he said. “A lot of it was resolved by resignations of employees.”

Fayette County manager Steve Rapson, right, listens to members of the county commissioners as the debate access to personal files during a special called open meeting at the Fayette County administrative complex, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018. The special meeting was called to question Commissioner Steve Brown’s access to the personnel file of the county 911 director. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A tense board meeting

Wednesday’s meeting showed deep divisions on the county board, as well as vastly divergent understandings about state law on government documents.

Brown opened the meeting by challenging the call to order. “I think this meeting is totally unnecessary,” he said. But he had plenty he wanted to say.

Commissioner Randy Ognio, who chaired the meeting, tried to head Brown off.

“This is my meeting. I’m chairing it,” he said. “We can discuss commissioners’ access (of records) only.”

That exchange set the tone and describes the division. Brown is a firebrand — an open government purist who sees himself as a Sampson pushing hard on the pillars of the temple. Either open up or he will bring it down.

“I followed the law to the letter,” he said. Commissioners could change the process and he would follow that, he said. It won’t stop him.

“All the documents are going out. We are going to have a river of documents,” he said. “People are going to know what this government is doing.”

Ognio, a taciturn contractor and vice chair of the board, treated Brown as a bomb thrower with no respect for process. He called the meeting to single Brown out and accuse him of failing to honor county procedures — maybe even for violating the law.

“We have a policy. We need to follow it,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we? We wrote the policy.”

Ognio wanted commissioners in the meeting to vote to follow the county’s existing policies and procedures. The vote itself was a paper tiger. It passed unanimously, but the motion enacted no new procedures and had no enforcement mechanism.

Commissioner Brown voted in favor, saying he didn’t violate the broadly worded policy on accessing documents. In fact, no one could articulate specifically how he had broken it.

Call center problems fixed, manager says

Personnel records for government employees are public and for good reason. Taxpayers have a right to see if the workers they pay are doing the job. County commissioners, the ultimate supervisors of all county employees, have even more reason — and a stronger legal right — to see them.

Rapson said he agrees with Brown most of the time on county policies, but he called the commissioner a “black helicopter type” prone to conspiracy theories.

The two men aren’t strangers. Prior to joining the county board in 2010, Brown was mayor of Peachtree City where Rapson was on the city council.

For years, Brown has complained in performance evaluations that Rapson fails to fully inform the board about problems within the county apparatus. The 911 center is a case study, he said.

Rapson said the problems in the center had been resolved. In his eyes, they never rose to the level of requiring board intervention. The county hired Bernard Brown in July 2015 to run the 911 center. Rapson said some long-time employees have had trouble adjusting to the new management style, which he described as “authoritarian.”

Both Ognio and Rapson defended Bernard Brown’s management of the center, saying it was fully staffed for the first time in years.

“I just felt there wasn’t an actual crisis,” Rapson said. “I felt there was an administrative change in philosophy.”