Once again, the Fayette County government has been forced to reckon with an internal structure that has a difficult time believing what it sees in the mirror.
As reported in the media, the director of the 911 Call Center was allowed to resign on Oct. 8. This resignation came amidst some fresh allegations of a serious nature. I had personally communicated with five employees or spouses of employees with the complaints being similar to those of former employees’ complaints of seven months ago related to bullying and a toxic work environment.
Clearly, the department that receives emergency phone calls from local people in distress is a vital function of the county government. Surely, we can all agree that we need a well-trained staff and a professional, well-run department to insure the safety of our citizens, so how do we get there?
First, know that employee turnover is an issue in 911 call centers just about everywhere. Some counties do better than others.
Fayette County had turnover rates approaching 50 percent at times. Likewise, keep in mind that not everyone is capable of the dealing with the emotion on the other end of the phone line from a screaming mother whose baby stopped breathing or someone committing suicide and so on.
When I first assumed the commissioner role and found out about the turnover, I suggested that we conduct thorough psychological evaluations prior to hiring and that was incorporated.
When longtime 911 Call Center Director Cheryl Rodgers retired in 2015, Bernard “Buster” Brown was hired. The incoming director made bold promises to end the turnover and get the program in shape.
Any honest person would tell you that Bernard Brown is high-strung and exceedingly forceful. His attitude must somehow have given the county administrator confidence that the director could live up to the promises made.
Breakdown and disappointment began to set in almost immediately as relations between employees and the new director went sour. Many of the former employees referred to Director Brown’s style as dictatorial, citing huge mood swings and verbal abuse.
For the better part of one year, Director Brown muddled on employee relations to the point of getting the county administrator personally involved in day-to-day discipline actions in the department while employees who were desperate for relief went through the proper channels using Human Resources to end the toxic work environment.
Quite a few of the employees, some longtime staff, were seeking counseling though a program set up by Human Resources and it was not uncommon to have episodes of employees crying during their shifts. In addition, Human Resources, after repeated requests, began an internal investigation while the entire department was quite literally in turmoil.
One of the most tragic parts of this gruesome tale was the county commissioners were totally unaware of what was unfolding in the 911 Call Center. County Administrator Steve Rapson had withheld it from the commissioners.
Government documents show that Director Brown verbally assaulted a subordinate in front of other employees to the point he had to be restrained and Administrator Rapson gave him nothing more than a slap on the wrist in return. Likewise, investigative notes from Human Resources provided a list of complaints which were also concerns registered by the contracted counseling service.
The chaos in the department came to my attention from former employees who begged me not to allow the abusive behavior from Director Brown to continue. Most of these employees had admirable annual reviews prior to the Director Brown era.
I carried on dialogues with nearly a dozen former employees who all gave similar stories, some weeping while they spoke, others begging me to “never let Buster know” they said anything about him because they feared he was so vindictive that he would attempt to get them fired on their current jobs.
After amassing nearly eight pages of complaint material, I made requests for all county documents concerning the turmoil and those employees. Unfortunately, some significant documents were withheld from me. A newspaper reporter asked if I knew anything about a specific incident, the verbal assault of the subordinate (mentioned above), and I had to reply that I did not, but I had been told that I had all the documents.
I went to the Human Resources office and asked to see Director Brown’s file and the top document was an accounting of the assault. At this point, I was not only angry that the County Administrator had failed to inform the commissioners of the on-going crisis, but also there could be a cover-up. Thus, I began to move toward seeking an outside, independent investigation of the department.
As I started to dig for the damning documents, an effort to stop me began. Director Brown attempted to have Board of Commissioners censure me as an act of intimidation to get me to stop (https://thecitizen.com/2018/02/06/9-1-1-director-seeks-county-censure-commissioner-steve-brown/). The effort was dismissed as inappropriate.
Commissioner Chuck Oddo began throwing up roadblocks to prevent my access to government documents. He even wanted the government to charge me a large fee to access the records. Chairman Eric Maxwell, Commissioner Charles Rousseau and I made it abundantly clear access to records was mandatory and the foolishness needed to stop. Additionally, the County Attorney and the Georgia First Amendment Foundation both said I had total access to the documents and Oddo had to shrink away (https://thecitizen.com/2018/02/13/brown-9-1-1-crisis/).
Documents noting Director Brown and Administrator Rapson showed a weeding of the employees who complained out of the system, some terminated, and others just could not take it any longer and left.
There was certainly enough material in county files and testimony to justify and independent investigation, but the County Administrator, Human Resources Director and some commissioners began to focus on blaming the former employees for the toxic work environment instead of Director Brown and those helping him. The motion for the investigation was voted down 3-2 with Commissioner Rousseau and I on the losing end.
With former employees out of the way, the situation at the 911 Call Center was still not improving as promised. Director Brown then stated that the level of pay was the problem. First the former employees, now the pay.
The Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a significant increase in funding to raise pay and also approved considerable funding for technology upgrades for the call center.
The momentum from the taxpayer cash being placed on the table soon waned and the new batch of 911 responders began to suffer from the same toxic workplace issues as the former employees, more intimidating verbal and physical activity from management, more crying and more fear of reporting it which could bring retaliation.
Some of the men and women that I spoke to, current employees at different levels, apologized for speaking in support of Director Brown at the Board of Commissioners meeting months ago and saying the work environment was pleasant. I told them, and I say publicly, they have nothing to apologize for because some had only been in the job for a month or so, absolutely no hard feelings.
I also learned during this experience that county department directors can freely create department “directives” with no supervision or approval process. The creation of directives, something akin to policies, were being weaponized to force employees into meeting Director Brown’s unrealistic employment expectations. I consulted with outside call center professionals who agreed with my assessment that the new directives were inappropriate.
There are some lessons learned from this experience. First, we pay the county administrator to track what is going on in the various departments and keep us apprised of what is happening, so no more hiding anything.
Accountability is a continuous problem and he has been warned on multiple occasions. Moreover, if the county administrator withholds vital information or records from a commissioner or blocks communication of any kind intended for the commissioners, there should be an automatic suspension leading to termination, if necessary (https/thecitizen.com/2018/01/30/brown-lack-transparency-county-leaders/).
Department directors should treat employees the way they would want to be treated. Listen to the employees and put your staff above yourself.
The Human Resources director with significant evidence of his own cannot buckle under to an over-zealous county administrator. Objectivity and fairness are required and the integrity of the system depends upon it.
If you want to curb employee turnover, act like it. This is so obvious that I should not have to say it but create a professional and caring environment. Get rid of vindictive managers and create training programs that are flexible enough to meet the demands of night shift workers, mothers with children, etc. Where there is patience and humility, there is neither anger nor vexation (St. Francis of Assisi).
When our employees feel threatened there needs to be a safe, non-retaliatory and receptive process for filing complaints. We need to create an employee appeals committee made up of an employee from each department to hear petitions, and not use the county administrator who gets too involved throughout. We owe the former 911 Call Center employees an apology.
My colleagues used the opinion of the County administrator as their gauge to determine whether action was previously needed or not. Perhaps the gauge is broken.
Commissioners learning about troubling situations in the county government from third parties is pathetic.
Finally, the taxpayer is always supreme. We should never hide anything from the taxpayers and we should treat them with the utmost respect.
With the quality people that we have answering our 911 calls, I am optimistic that we can turn the 911 Call Center into an exemplary workplace, drastically improving the toxic environment from what we had before. I strongly suggest that the county search for a qualified leader with excellent relational skills from the outside to assume the permanent director’s position.
Steve Brown, Commissioner
Fayette County Board of Commissioners
Peachtree City, Ga.