Tuesday, April 13, 2010

3 To Stay on Benton Panel Despite Role in Secret Votes (From Arkansas Democrat Gazette)

3 to stay on Benton panel despite role in secret votes

E-mail balloting on promotion broke law, city found


 — BENTON - Three members of Benton's Civil Service Commission kept their positions Monday despite taking part in secret votes in violation of the state's Freedom of Information Act.

The City Council voted 6-4 in favor of removal, falling just shy of the seven votes needed to remove Chairman Frank Baptist, Sheryl Childs and Sam Gipson.

They are volunteers on the five-member citizen panel that deals with police and fire personnel issues. Its most recent violation of the open-meeting provisions of the Freedom of Information Act was a December 2009 e-mail vote.

By that vote, members decided to throw out 13 questions on an exam to give Mark Mills a passing score, allowing him to be promoted to assistant fire chief.

Baptist, Childs and Gipson voted by e-mail. After the secret vote was discovered, the commission held an emergency meeting on Dec. 31 to conduct a public vote.

City Attorney Brent Houston reviewed the promotion and found it to be illegal. He also found a 2006 private vote Childs and Gipson took part in to change promotional procedures for firefighters.

Mayor Rick Holland took responsibility for the commissioners' ignorance of state laws, saying he failed to get them training.

When the council failed to remove the three from the commission, Alderman Brad Moore questioned what the city is doing to educate the commissioners.

"What procedures are you putting in place?" Moore asked the mayor. Holland said the city has asked the Arkansas Municipal League to provide some training.

In addition to Moore, aldermen Steve Lee, Joe Lee Richards, Greg White, Larry Wolf and Bill Donnor voted for removal. Aldermen Doug Stracener, David Sparks, Jerry Ponder and Charles Cunningham voted against it, giving varying reasons.

As for Mills' contested promotion, Houston said he considers it resolved. He said a document surfaced recently that showed Mills was promoted in 2007 without approval of the Civil Service Commission, meaning Mills holds the assistant chief spot but has no civil-service protection. Mills, unlike other firefighters, can be fired without cause and has no recourse through the commission, Houston said.

Mills also is acting as fire chief since Ben Blankenship retired at the end of the year. Mills is not among the applicants for the top job.

Mills has sued two aldermen over "emotional damage" from the promotion fallout, claiming Richards and Lee wanted him stripped of his rank or job over personal issues. The city hasn't yet responded to the suit.

This article was published today at 4:50 a.m.

Arkansas, Pages 7 on 04/13/2010


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Honorable James F. Valley
MAYOR - Helena West Helena
P O Box 248
226 Perry Street
Helena-West Helena, 72342
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