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Quorum Court honors former Justices of the Peace with resolutions

by J.D. Bailey on 01/12/21

With only a few items on the agenda for January, the Columbia County Quorum Court this week passed a set of resolutions honoring former Justices of the Peace, as well as a resolution that transferred funds within department budgets.

Resolutions of appreciation were read aloud and approved unanimously that honored former JPs Marjie Blair and Steve Lee, whose terms both ended on Dec. 31, 2020. Blair, who represented District 2 of Columbia County, had been in office since 2007. She retired from the Quorum Court at the end of her term. Lee, who represented District 6 of Columbia County, was defeated in last May’s primary by Greg Sanders. Lee had been a JP since 2009.

Neither of the former JPs honored Monday by the Court were present at this week’s Quorum Court meeting.

The Court also passed a resolution amending budgets within county departments. The transfers included budget amendments ranging from $6 to $13,000 within the County Judge’s office, the County Clerk’s office, the County Equalization Board, County Elections, the Columbia County Sheriff's Office, Office of Emergency Management, County Jail, and the Public Defender’s office. Most of the transfers were made to accommodate overtime pay, salaries, health insurance matching, unemployment, and workman’s compensation.

In other Quorum Court News:

  • Columbia County Judge Denny Foster stated that the county has received $651,179 in coronavirus relief funds as part of the CARES Act grant monies. The funds were applied for in November and will be set up in a special COVID relief fund within the county budget. The funds were awarded to help finance county emergency and health worker salaries and expenses associated with the virus.

  • JP Annette Pate, who chairs the Quorum Court’s Finance Committee, revealed that the county ended 2020 with a General Fund budget interest income of $11,000 more than what was initially projected. She attributed the excess to smart investing and projections from the county treasurer’s office.

  • The Magnolia-Columbia County joint rescue truck project is close to being finalized, according to JP Jason Ray. A resolution for voting on the project is expected to be ready next month. The Magnolia Fire Department is currently operating as the county’s rescue service provider. The agency is expected to do so for the foreseeable future as part of the city-county deal, but new equipment still needs to be purchased. The price tag for a new, fully retrofitted rescue truck is expected to be over $100,000. 

  • WCA solid waste pickup may be running a few days late in the next few weeks, according to Foster. He said this week that COVID-19 has sidelined multiple drivers for the county’s solid waste pickup provider.

Quorum Court finds recent landfill firing did not violate county employee policy

by J.D. Bailey on 01/12/21

A recent firing of a Columbia County Landfill employee was upheld Monday night after more than 90 minutes of witness testimony in front of a Columbia County Quorum Court grievance committee hearing in Magnolia. The hearing, which took place at the Columbia County Courthouse, saw former county worker Brenda Dixon accuse her former boss, Landfill Supervisor John Dyson, of violating the Columbia County employee policy as a result of her November 2020 firing from the department.

Dixon was a longtime former office employee at the county landfill and felt, according to her testimony, that the termination was unjust and a violation of her Constitutional rights to free speech. The quorum court, however, after witness testimony from both Dixon and Dyson, as well as another Columbia County Landfill employee who witnessed the termination incident last year, ultimately voted 9-0 that Dixon’s firing did not violate the county’s termination policy.

JPs Penny Cook, Annette Pate, Jason Ray, Lynn Story, Oliver Thomas, Burnie Sharp, Rick Waller, and newly sworn-in District 6 JP Greg Sanders, all voted in unison on the matter, while JP Terry Williams abstained from voting. Sam Sharp, who was recently sworn-in as the Justice of the Peace for District 2, taking the place of former longtime JP Marjie Blair, was not present at the meeting, nor was JP Russell Thomas.

The vote was public and took place immediately following the witness testimony. The court deemed that no executive session was needed to privately discuss the matter in more detail before voting.

The state of Arkansas in an “at-will” state, meaning employees can be terminated without cause. If a public employee alleges he or she was fired on a discriminatory basis (age, gender, national origin, race, creed, etc.) and violated the Columbia County employment policy, then a public grievance hearing can be held to determine whether the firing was within the scope of the rules.

Dyson stated during his testimony that Dixon was fired for insubordination and overall hostile actions that culminated in a Nov. 18, 2020, verbal altercation at the Columbia County Landfill offices.

Dixon claimed that she was fired over questioning her supervisor on coronavirus office quarantine protocols.

Caleb Baumgardner, an El Dorado-based private attorney, represented Dixon during the hearing and led the questioning on her behalf, while Columbia County Attorney Becky Jones led the questioning for the county. Quorum Court members were also allowed to interject with questions during the witness portion of the hearing. All witnesses testified under oath.

Dixon was the first witness to take the stand Monday night. Baumgardner began by asking her a series of questions that laid out why she requested the grievance hearing and why she felt her firing violated the county’s termination policy.

The Macedonia Community resident had been employed at the Columbia County Solid Waste Department as an office manager and gate attendant for the Columbia County Landfill for nearly 10 years before her termination on Nov. 18, 2020. She said Monday that she hoped to regain her old position at the landfill office, along with all of her accrued benefits.

When asked if she wanted Dyson to be reprimanded for his alleged actions, she said instead that she hoped he would receive “coaching” on how to better deal with employee pandemic issues. Dyson stated during his testimony on Monday that he had no problems with Dixon’s actual job performance, but that her multiple “explosions” over time and her insubordination during last year’s verbal spat were the ultimate cause of the firing.

In her testimony, Dixon said she felt Dyson did not properly handle an in-office quarantine situation after multiple employees came in “close contact” on Nov. 11, 2020, with an employee that later tested positive for COVID-19. She alleged that workers that had been off for contact tracing were coming back into the office after only a few days away from work and that she wanted answers to why this was happening.

“To me, I was questioning to John [Dyson], ‘why are sending them home, and then letting them come back?’” she said Monday during her testimony. “I questioned him about that, and he got upset with me,” she said. “When I questioned him about that, he told me to go home. I was kind of shocked. I didn’t know why he was telling me to go home because it was only 7:30 a.m. He told me to go home again, and I said, ‘no.’”

Dixon stated that she further questioned why Dyson was allowing employees to come and go from work if they had been in “close contact” with someone who tested positive for coronavirus.

“I have grandchildren that I’m not allowed to be around because of the other employees that were in close contact because of this pandemic,” she added. “I have a pregnant daughter-in-law that I’m not allowed to be around, and he was letting employees come and go that had been infected. I questioned him about that, and he got mad.”

Dixon later said that, after telling her to “go home” three times and she refused, her supervisor then informed her that she was fired.

Dixon also testified that two virus protocol meetings had been held at the office on her days off, but that she was present for the conversations and did not know what was said there.

“They had a meeting with all of the employees on [Nov. 13, 2020], but I happened to be off,” she said. “They also had another meeting on [Nov. 17, 2020] about COVID-related issues, but I was not aware of these because I was off.”

Dixon noted that on Nov. 18, 2020, she continued to ask about discussions held at the meetings, and why Dyson was allowing employees to come back and forth to work.

“To me, I don’t think he was taking our lives as seriously as I think he should be,” she added. “… So, I just questioned him on it, and he got mad, then he fired me.”

Dixon said she stayed at the landfill office for another hour or so, then Dyson called the Columbia County Sheriff's Office to escort her off the property.

She later said she felt her Constitutional rights to free speech had been violated and that she wished to contest her recent termination.

Dixon during testimony also played a recording of portions of the Nov. 18, 2020, incident. Dyson later testified that he had no knowledge she was taping the conversation. Dixon said she secretly taped the incident “for my own safety.”

In the recording, Dixon could be heard questioning Dyson, then raising her tone of voice to him. Dyson became agitated and retorted: “Brenda, go home. Just go on home.”

The exchange continued, with Dyson telling Dixon multiple times to “go home,” to which Dixon continually answered, “no.”

After another bit of exchange between the two parties, Dyson said, “You’re fired.”

In reply to the firing, Dixon yelled, “OK, John, you want that? Boy, are you going to be sorry!”

As the recording continued, things settled. Dyson told Dixon that he would tell her everything about the virus protocol meetings, “If you’ll let me.”

Dixon later apologized and the conversation calmed down even more. The former landfill employee could be heard saying “I’m just concerned” to her former supervisor.

The conversion was, at times, difficult to follow, but Dyson after the apology said, “I’m just following [OEM] guidelines” and that employees that had been exposed were “beyond CDC guidelines” for quarantine. He was also heard counting 14 days for one employee who never came down with coronavirus.

After a few more minutes of calm discussion between the two, the recording finished. In total, it was around 15 minutes of conversation.

In his final questioning, Baumgardner asked if Dixon felt she was wrongfully terminated for “engaging in Constitutionally protected speech.”

She replied, “Yes.”

In her cross-examination of Dixon, County Attorney Jones asked pointed questions about the former employee’s specific job duties and whether they included questioning her supervisor. She also asked if Dixon was the party who initiated the Nov. 18, 2020, and asked if she understood the meaning of being an “at-will” employee, to which Dixon replied, “Yes.”

“I’m not perfect,” Dixon added, “And I know my tone of voice is not always what it should be, but I was curious as to why he was asking me to go home.”

Jones also asked if Dixon refused Dyson’s request to “go home” multiple times.

Dixon did not dispute the claim and admitted that she would not leave the office that day upon her supervisor’s request. She also again added that she was confused by his line of questioning.

In her final set of questions, Jones asked Dixon if she had ever been disciplined before her firing late last year. She replied that she was “written up” after a 2016 incident and agreed that she probably let her emotions “get the better of her” in that instance.

After Dixon’s witness statements, her former supervisor was called to the stand. In his testimony, Dyson said that Dixon came to the office on Nov. 18, 2020, and seemed “agitated” and felt that “it was only a matter of time” before a verbal altercation occurred.

When the topic of coronavirus came up, according to Dyson, the conversation devolved into the explosive argument heard in the recording. The landfill supervisor added that Dixon was also “totally uncontrollable” and would not listen to anything he had to say and that she was not able to be reasoned with.

“I tried to attempt to diffuse the situation three different times,” he said. “And she said, ‘no.’”

Dyson also claimed that, after telling Dixon she was fired, she slammed both hands on his desk and encroached into his personal space with a harsh message for him, before pacing back and forth in the office.

“She came across my desk, slammed her hands, and got six inches away from my face and said, ‘you’ll be sorry,” said the landfill supervisor.

Another employee in the office witnessed the incident and attempted to calm Dixon down, according to Dyson.

“She wasn’t hearing it,” he said.

He noted that Dixon’s demeanor, attitude, insubordination, and detrimental conduct all lead to her termination and that there had been incidents in the past similar to the Nov. 18, 2020, argument that were “too many to count.”

The 2016 written reprimand, according to Dyson, was due to the same types of conduct. The landfill supervisor also claimed that another written reprimand occurred in 2018 over “aggression to other employees” that Dixon refused to sign.

“It’s been an ongoing problem -- the blow-ups, as I call them,” said Dyson.

The supervisor noted that fellow employees have also had problems with Dixon, but he said he would “rather not answer” how they felt about her.

Jones asked Dyson if the coronavirus subject matter of the discussion on Nov. 18, 2020, had anything to do with Dixon’s firing, to which he responded, “No, it did not.”

The final witness testimony on Monday came from current landfill employee Ron Atkins. The 9.5-year county worker in his statements said that he had seen Dixon be “confrontative” at times and “get a little testy,” and be “very irate” but that she was never “out of control.”

In his short testimony, Atkins said that, at one point on Nov. 18, 2020, he told Dixon to “chill” when she was highly agitated. He also witnessed Dyson tell her multiple times to “go home” and that she said “no” when told to do so.

“She got up close to the desk, she put her hands on the desk, and she leaned over and she was talking right to him,” said Atkins.

The elderly county employee during his cross-examination from Baumgardner said that Dixon also had taken care of him three years ago when he was sick and that she visited him multiple times while he was in the hospital.

When all testimony on Monday was completed, the Quorum Court declined the need to deliberate on what they had just witnessed. The roll call vote and the “no” votes came swiftly after the county’s governing body found that Dixon’s firing did not violate the county’s employment termination policy. A simple majority was all that was required for the motion to pass.

After the vote, the grievance hearing was adjourned.

Pay raises halted for city workers as part of 2021 budget

by J.D. Bailey on 12/08/20

An unpredictable 2020 has now affected next year's budget for the City of Magnolia. 

On Monday, the Magnolia City Council unanimously passed a balanced 2021 city operating budget. The passage was similar to past years, but for next year, municipal employees are not slated for pay increases. The move comes as an extra financial precaution amid the coronavirus pandemic, now in its 10th month, according to Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann. 

“We were scared to give raises this year not knowing what Covid is going to do,” he said. “We probably could have done that, but we’re worried about the income because the city runs off sales tax income.”

The mayor noted earlier this year that city finances were still stable, but that extra expenses had been halted. He said Monday that the delay on employee raises is not expected to be longterm, adding that pay increases for city workers is slated to be part of the 2022 city operating budget, should local sales tax revenues allow it.

“We’ve got to see where 2021 takes us,” he said.

The city, however, has not been totally frozen from an employee hiring standpoint. Magnolia Utilities, which includes the city water and wastewater departments, added a new full-time water manager this year. The city had been without a full-time water manager since 2017. The hire had long been a suggestion of water department audits. The water manager hire was able to be made since city water and wastewater sectors are funded by local utility fees and not through sales tax revenues, according to the mayor.

The new water manager is a certified water distribution and water treatment operator. He has reportedly been well worth the extra investment. 

“He has already made a tremendous change to the water that we supply not only to the city but to all of our customers,” said Vann.

Mandy Ezell, office manager at Magnolia Utilities, said Monday that there have been no complaints of cloudy or discolored water in Magnolia over the last 3-5 months. 

Magnolia Utilities also invested heavily into the restoration and reopening of the Sterling Lacy Water Purification Plant at W. Greene Street, which transforms the water of Lake Columbia into clean drinking water for city water customers. The 30-year-old plant had been closed since 2018 but was reopened in the summer to alleviate municipal water depletion from the Sparta Sand Aquifer, which had been the source of Magnolia water for over two years.

Pumping water from Lake Columbia is not without challenges. In late 2019, the invasive plant species Giant Salvinia made its way into the Magnolia waterbody and now requires supervision from the Arkansas Health Department to perform semi-annual, non-toxic herbicide sprays to keep the plant from overtaking the lake. The problem is not one that will go away anytime soon, according to the mayor.

“The Giant Salvinia, it’s never going to go away,” he said. “It’s here forever. So every so often, we’ll have to spray the lake. I hope -- and that’s just me -- that it’s only two times per year.”

Magnolia Utilities is expected to cycle between Lake Columbia and Sparta Sand wells throughout the year.

Aside from the new water manager, other hires at Magnolia Utilities have also been made in recent weeks and months to aid in water and wastewater treatment for the city, according to Vann. The hires include new maintenance workers, as well as a water treatment intern.

Other expenses in the city’s 2021 operating budget include the purchase of two new Magnolia Police Department units and a city wastewater vehicle, as well as a joint-venture rescue truck purchase with the government of Columbia County.

The new police cruisers are standard expenses every year, according to Vann.

“We’re doing the two vehicles with the police that we’ve been doing for a number of years,” he said.

In other City Council News:

- The Council unanimously approved a $162,800 bid from Ed Pharr Construction for the erection of a new shop building at the Magnolia Street Department. The new facility will provide coverage for the department’s 33 pieces of equipment, as well as a stable place for the Street Department mechanic to work, according to Jerry Lewis, supervisor of the Magnolia Street Department.

The building will 50 feet by 200 feet, with a 50 foot by 50-foot enclosure, as well as open bays. The only other bid submitted came through Morton Buildings Inc., based in Mayflower, at $163,361. The Morton bid did not include concrete work, while the accepted Ed Pharr Construction bid, which came in $1,000 lower, did include concrete work.

The funds to pay for the project will include no taxpayer monies, according to Vann. The building costs were generated mostly through property abatements and millings, as well as excess department funds, according to Lewis.

The work on the new building is expected to begin soon.

- The Garver 2040 city improvement plan is expected to be voted upon by the Magnolia City Council in the coming months. The plan, which would completely overhaul the city’s zoning laws and regulations, was a multi-year project in hopes of improving Magnolia’s layout for the decades ahead. Aside from a complete change in zoning, the plan also calls for city signage regulations to go from only a few paragraphs in the current city code, to more than three pages of laws in the new plan.

The Garver plan still needs to be looked over by the city attorney’s office to make sure all of the potential new rules are Constitutional and within the parameters of state laws. The Garver issue will likely be brought back to the City Council in early 2021.