Augusta Commission to examine personnel board's actions after two plant workers reinstated

Augusta commissioners are taking a hard look at the personnel board that reinstated two water treatment operators last week.

"I think they just made a stupid decision, personally," Commissioner Joe Bowles said during a committee meeting Monday. "They were reinstated because of what other people did."

On Wednesday the personnel board voted 8-1 to overrule a decision by Deputy City Administrator Robert Leverett to fire two water treatment operators accused of clocking each other in for hours they didn't work.

Only board member Chip Barbee opposed the decision.

The operators, John Allen and Santonia Dennis, were among six employees at the Augusta Utilities Department's Highland Avenue water treatment plant placed on administrative leave in March while Utilities Director Tom Wiedmeier and auditor Baird and Co. conducted a probe.

Soon after, water treatment operators Anthony Hannah, Cliff Pittman and John Tucker received written warnings for being clocked out by someone else and went back to work. Their supervisor, Operations Manager Michael Hopkins, was demoted.

On Monday Wiedmeier acknowledged that plant management had "a problem," now being addressed by Interim Operations Manager Debra Beazley, but that he'd made the correct decision to fire only Allen and Dennis.

"I think I took the action that I thought was right, and my mind has not changed," Wiedmeier said.

He has said he opted not to fire Hannah, Pittman and Tucker because they acknowledged wrongdoing. But during the hearing, the three employees testified they'd never admitted to being clocked in or out by someone else and that they'd signed off on the warning letters so they could get back to work.

On Monday, Commissioner Don Grantham requested a closed-door meeting of the city finance committee with legal counsel to discuss the personnel board's action.

"What we need to do is make the personnel board a recommending authority to the administrator," said Commissioner Jerry Brigham, a member of the four-person committee.

The personnel board system was created before consolidation and "a majority of the commissioners" are unhappy with it, Brigham said.

The case was only the second personnel hearing that Augusta Interim General Counsel Andrew Mackenzie said the city had lost during his tenure.

Six years ago, before Mackenzie's tenure, the personnel board overturned the firing of animal control supervisor Bruce McClure. When McClure was terminated again this year, the board upheld his firing.

Changing the personnel board system will require changing the ordinance that established it, Brigham said.

Augusta Human Resources Director Rod Powell said he's awaiting a recommendation from Administrator Fred Russell before the two reinstated employees return to work.

The next step for the city or the employees is the court system, Powell said.

"Either party has the right to exhaust the administrative remedies," he said.

Powell said he thought Utilities had "solid evidence" in the case against the two but that the personnel board was likely looking for "consistency" in the penalties administered.

The process could have been better handled if his department had been involved from the outset of the investigation, Powell said.

Water workers reinstated

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