Commission digs into legality of eliminating HR position

Blount County commissioners debated the merits of filling the vacant Human Resources director’s position versus saving $100,000 by allowing someone else to do the job during the April 21 monthly meeting.

A motion to fill the position ultimately was referred back to the HR committee, but not before long discussion, with Commissioner Gary Farmer fielding questions regarding the HR director position. Farmer said the position was created by the commission in 1996, meaning the mayor’s office has no authority to eliminate or not fill the position.

The position gained attention recently after former HR director Betsy Cunningham took a job in the private sector, and Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell wanted to consolidate the position with that of Risk Manager Don Stallions, saving $100,000 in salary and benefits.

The commission balked at the move, and Mitchell apologized for not knowing about the resolution that created the position. Stallions is still serving as interim HR director in addition to his duties as Risk Manager.

Mitchell addressed the commission and said he was only trying to save the county money when he proposed allowing the Risk Manager to also do the HR director’s job. “I explained to Don Stallions there would be no more money because of the budget crunch. At the time, all I was looking at was the opportunity to save money, and I didn’t know about the resolution,” he said. “I don’t know how this turned into an issue. I apologize. I didn’t mean to miss this resolution. I hope we can make a decision tonight on this.”

Gordon Wright Sr., argued for allowing the mayor to consolidate the position. “I don’t see the sense of funding a position at a cost of $100,000,” he said. “Anyone who votes to (to keep the HR position) when we’ve got an employee who is qualified doing the job, anyone who supports this is giving away $100,000.”

Farmer said the county Human Resource director represents the employees and protects the county. “The job set up is to ensure each department is in compliance with federal labor laws,” he said.

Commissioner Scott Helton said having the HR director report to the Human Resources committee and the mayor ensures that employees are protected from situations in which they are mistreated by a department head or office holder.

“At no point has anyone said the HR director can’t be the Risk Manager,” said Farmer. “It is just that the HR director oversees policies. No one has said we’re not going to have just one person, “ Helton said. Commissioner Tab Burkhalter added, “No on has said we’re getting rid of Don Stallions. If he becomes HR director, we would not have to fill the Risk Manager position if Mr. Stallions also wants to do that job.”

Commissioner Jerome Moon said, “This is an attempt to clean up policy. No where does it say we have to hire someone for $100,000,” he said. “The HR position is vital to Blount County.”

Commissioner Jim Folts said, “The more I delve into this, the less sense it makes. If the commission wants to micromanage the HR director this deeply, let’s forget the HR director and let the HR committee do the job.”

The debate got heated when Folts began to address the overall county debt as it relates to insurance, and Commissioner Scott Helton called for the question. Folts countered, “Do you not want to hear any more facts?”

Chairman Kenneth Melton then asked parliamentarian Mike Lewis about the rule for calling for the question, even in the middle of a commissioner’s comments. “You can call for question at any time,” Lewis responded, to which Folts said, “This sets a new precedent.”

After 11 commissioners voted to call for the question and 9 voted against it, the motion failed, as a two-thirds vote is needed to pass a call for question.

Folts continued, saying the bond ratings agencies are watching how the county manages its funds, in particular handing more control to a Human Resources committee composed of county employees. “This is the kind of thing that will hurt our credit ratings,” he said. “Does anyone think handing over control of county benefits to county employees will improve our ratings? These agencies are watching us, and this is the kind of thing that will hurt our credit ratings.”

Commissioner Steve Samples said the county needs a sitting HR director. “This job was established by this legislative body in 1996. There were processes in place, and there is a uniform personnel policy in effect. I don’t think we need to wait, if we had a legal confrontation and get into a litigation, we have devastated this county,” he said.

Lewis recommended the motion be referred to the Human Resources committee. “It needs more work and thought,” he said, to which commission Ron French seconded it and commissioners voted 20-0-1 to refer it to the HR Committee.

In other business, Highway Superintendent Bill Dunlap said Tennessee Department of Transportation officials had taken steps to reopen both lanes of traffic on Highway 73 at Stables Drive near where a bridge is being rebuilt near the National Park boundary. Commissioner Wright had voiced concerns that traffic backups would deter tourists from coming to Townsend.

“TDOT has opened both lanes. One weekends, they’ll open the roads and weekdays in the afternoons they’ll manually control that traffic light,” Dunlap said.

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