Many people are aware of the controversy surrounding the director of the county’s 911 Call Center. The situation began to heat up when former call center employees spoke out at our Board of Commissioners meeting on Dec. 14, 2017. At that time, each commissioner was handed a flash drive with data related to call center activity on it.
I did not get around to looking at the contents of the flash drive until after Christmas. What I found in the documentation and audio files shocked me.
The worst part is that our County Administrator Steve Rapson, who is subordinate to the entire Board of Commissioners, purposefully chose not to inform all the commissioners of exactly what was going on for the past couple of years.
More troubling was the lack of response to the complaints over those years from Rapson and Human Resources Director Lewis Patterson.
The debacle has made the county government ripe for a slew of EEOC-style lawsuits. There is plenty of evidence to trip over.
There have been numerous attempts at keeping documents out of the hands of people wanting to investigate what transpired. The first attempt was withholding pertinent documents related to the two-year conflict.
I had been told the 911 Call Center Director Bernard “Buster” Brown had been officially reprimanded for overly aggressive behavior towards an employee, but there was no such document in the papers given to me by HR’s Patterson. Consequently, I went to the HR office and asked to see Director Brown’s personnel file. In the file was a copy of the “missing” document.
When it comes to government open records and open meetings rights, I am one of the strongest advocates in the state, and I offer no apology for that stance. I know the law. My colleagues were instructed in the law as well.
Unfortunately, Patterson, who maintains the personnel files, acts as though he has never heard of the Georgia Open Records Act, which has been in effect for many years.
Once Commissioners Randy Ognio and Chuck Oddo found out that I was pulling documents as allowed by state law, they began a foolhardy attempt at obstruction and deflection. They called a special meeting saying I was committing illegal acts of trickery.
It’s an old political tactic of starting a fire elsewhere in the hopes that people will not see blaze behind them.
The meeting was beneficial because Ognio and Oddo received an excellent tutorial on the Georgia Open Records Act from those present. I am also using the video of that meeting for high school and college level civics discussions on citizens’ rights on government meetings and records.
The Georgia First Amendment Foundation (www.gfaf.org) also wrote a nice letter reiterating that citizens do have access to government records, even elected officials have access — go figure.
Undeterred, Oddo then wanted to enforce a painful financial penalty against me for accessing government documents related to the 911 Call Center debacle. It was unbelievable that he even considered creating a financial penalty on a government official who wanted investigate allegations of government corruption and abuse. That really bad idea was shot down.
Still on the charge, Director Brown fired a torpedo at me by filing an official grievance as an act of intimidation, asking for me to be officially censured.
That hotheaded and impulsive gesture pulled many citizens well over to my side of the fence. The tirade was also shot down and it reinforced the image of Brown’s runaway-train style of management that many former employees had cited.
At the Board of Commissioner meeting on Feb. 8, we had an emotional employee pep rally with a few people extolling the virtues of County Administrator Rapson, and the Assistant 911 Director asked the call center staff, most of them new, to appear at the meeting in full uniform.
This “show-of-force” tactic is generally not as effective with elected officials with significant experience and who want to get down to the bottom of things.
Not giving up, Oddo had my agenda item asking for an independent investigation of the call center tabled and deferred to the next meeting at the end of the month.
In the middle of my commissioner’s comments at the end of the meeting, a spotter I had in the audience watched Director Brown give his employees the signal to get up and leave the meeting room in the middle of my remarks. He was again reinforcing the criticism against him.
Is there any doubt that we have a movement ongoing to evade an investigation, gee whiz?
Many of the former call center employees offered lists of issues of where Director Brown was creating a toxic work environment in a department that already deals with the stress of handling emergency distress calls. Several of the honest current employees conveyed that they had seen some not-so-good stuff too.
We now have the Dr. Jekyll and Bernard Brown argument. The good director versus the bad director.
There is no doubt that we had a major exhibition of unprofessional and damaging behavior from the Director Brown over his two-year tenure. There is plenty of documentation and testimony on that one.
However, the most troubling part is County Administrator Rapson and HR Director Patterson knew about these problems and did little or nothing. Supervisors were fired under dubious circumstances and Rapson and Patterson claim Director Brown is now professionally abstemious.
Rapson wrote one slap-on-the-wrist-style reprimand in early 2016 for a verbal assault on a supervisor which was noted as unacceptable at any level. That was the only such document in the director’s file.
The independent Employee Assistance Program representative for the county took damaging information directly to Patterson. In fact, the employees themselves also pursued every official channel available to them, pleading for something to be done.
Truth be told, I can honestly see why Rapson and Patterson are puffing out their chests and fighting to avoid and independent investigation of the 911 Call Center activity. There is a possibility they are not going to come out looking so good.
Patterson during periods of inaction would tell employees that Director Brown was “in the process of changing.” Likewise, Patterson lashed out at me in the meeting for making government records publicly available.
I get why Patterson is feeling like a hot potato. His own investigation notes say, “Buster is known to be loud and use profanity in the radio room, known to make comments in jest about firing people.” Great environment for people handling emergency calls.
Rapson said nearly a week ago, “I think Buster Brown has been put on notice for several things.”
AJC investigative reporter Chris Joyner said, “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 [Director Brown’s] arrival.” That impacts the quality of emergency response.
One takeback from the Feb. 8 meeting is some of our county employees should be reminded that they are not above the law and they had better be prepared to abide by it.
Another is that the elected commissioners have a fiduciary responsibility to the citizens of Fayette County related to 911 Center Call turnover, lawsuits, the increased pay that was shelled out and the new $18 million radio system that is going to be installed.
The commissioners were asked to provide a significant amount of additional taxpayer funds to make our call center employees the highest paid in the state, supposedly to curb turnover. A taxpayer-funded compensation and classification study was purposefully skewed to raise call center pay.
However, having significant information withheld from us related to some real causes of the turnover is negligent behavior on the part of the County Administrator and the HR Director.
Reporter Joyner made it clear, “Rapson said he had no plans for further investigation into Bernard Brown’s claimed past behavior.” It appears Rapson does not want the taxpaying citizens to get an impartial report regarding a department that is directly responsible for the personal safety of our residents.
We will vote to see if Rapson gets his way on the matter at the Board of Commissioners meeting on Feb. 22.
Commissioner, District 3
Peachtree City, Ga.