Twelve days before Christmas, Jackson employees suddenly received a mass e-mail from the Mississippi Department of Employment Security stating that they were "registered with the Mississippi Department of Employment Security" and that they were, thus, "covered by unemployment insurance."
Two days later, the mass e-mail made more sense. On Thursday Mayor Frank Melton announced that he was planning to eliminate about 46 jobs in the city's Planning and Development Department. The positions, ranging from Housing and Community Development to Code Services, are being emptied by New Year's Day 2006 so the mayor can re-staff them in an effort to better fight urban blight, he said.
"They haven't done what they're supposed to do, " Melton told The Clarion-Ledger, explaining that tearing down or reconstructing dilapidated housing, as well as criminal prosecution of code violations, has been moving at a snail's pace.
News of the mass firings hit some council members hard. Both Ward 7's Margaret Barrett Simon and Ward 1's Ben Allen initially expressed disbelief.
"This is the dismantling of city government department by department," said Barrett Simon.
"This is just terrible, and in the week of Christmas. When you're talking about 40 positions, you're talking about families. Remember (the dissolution of) the Crime Prevention Unit? Those were mostly women, and they were sole providers for their family. Merry Christmas, right? Hah," scoffed Barrett Simon, adding that she feared the eliminations may be an attempt to make ends meet in a city budget with reported shortfalls.
"I have no idea what he's doing," Barrett Simon said of Melton. "It's anyone's guess. You don't make rash decisions like this unless you have a plan, and if the mayor of this city has a plan, he needs to tell us, because at this point, I don't think anybody knows what his plan is."
"Melton hasn't talked to anybody about it. We don't know what the hell's going on," Allen said. "You can't balance the budget based on one of the most important departments in the city."
"Heidel is re-structuring the department," Allen said, "but I know for a fact that Heidel was not even aware of the firings of (Acting Director Corinne) Fox or (Deputy Director Franklin) Franklin (Tate)," both of whom got letters of termination earlier that week.
Sources inside Planning and Development claim Heidel recommended the firings. Heidel said at the city's planning session on Monday that he stood behind streamlining efforts in the department.
Former Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr., said he didn't blame departmental personnel for the bottleneck in housing re-development and that most of the hold-ups usually involved a scant city demolition budget.
"When I was in office, we tore down almost 2,000 dilapidated houses in four years, and I didn't see the performance of the department being such that it warranted laying off some nearly 50 people," Johnson said. "To me, this action would seem to be more of a budget-cutting exercise than an issue with performance."
No planning and development employees contacted were willing to talk before their Jan. 1 termination date. Fox said that she was offered a demotion but chose to retire instead.
Ward 3's Leslie McLemore, a frequent voice for faster urban re-development, said the blame lay in both staff work ethic and budget shortfalls.
"I share Mayor Melton's frustration with the time frame and how long it takes to get housing torn down, but I just don't want to see us do something and then not have a plan in place to improve upon what we have," McLemore said, explaining that the mayor's Quality of Life Commission, which was to replace the defunct Crime Prevention Unit "within days," according to Melton in late September, had yet to materialize.
"We've gone from one administration where the mayor was accused of being too much of a planner to one that appears to have no planning at all," McLemore said. McLemore disputed that the administration was cutting jobs to save money, because budgetary concerns had, so far, "been a low priority for the new administration."
"When there was discussion about the cost of the replacement for the Crime Prevention Unit, nobody had any numbers. The boot-camp concept came to us, but there was no budget attached to it, either, so I think all of this just reflects the fancy of the mayor."
Brenda Scott, president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees, said she would not speak on the mayor's method, but said that the besieged department had been complacent in light of unionization attempts over the year. Last week, Scott announced that more than 50 percent of the city's workers had submitted union interest cards to the AFL-CIO, but no cards have come from Planning and Development.
"It's bad that you have to hit one department, but where were they when the Crime Prevention people were let go? Or a couple of people in the detention center were let go? See, everybody wants to sit back and wait until it comes to their door, but oftentimes, that's too late to do anything about it by then," Scott said. "If they were unionized I could go on the record and speak on their behalf but right now, I can't speak for someone I don't even know."
Days after the Crime Protection Unit's elimination, Scott told the Jackson Free Press that the state treated its employees with even less respect than the city, and argued that Melton was trying to deal with a tight city budget.
Department employees are protected under Civil Service regulations and can't be fired without good reason. Scott predicted that numerous employees from the department would be calling either the Civil Service Commission "or a lawyer."
Can city workers really have a union here? Ok, let's go! I know, everyone
gets annoyed when city services are withheld , like the strike in NYC.
But public employees are the last stand now. Seriously. It's like,
all over otherwise.
See the Walmart movie. (It has sort of a happy ending..)
The union folks, so far, are defending Mr. Melton's actions. Only another factoid in the bizarreness that has overtaken Jackson of late. Wake up, Dorothy.
no, no, I'm not from Kansas.
But I do know unions are boxed in. Just like the dems.
it's not over yet.
Wow that's amazing... but firing an entire department? that's crazy. I'll have to agree in principal that they are probably not the go getters that he envisions he needs, but that's due to poor leadership (which by the way they were playing to the sterotype of a typical govt employee) and not the character of the average employee. The primary reason for their inaction is they are evolving beings and they adapt in order to survive, even if that means doing nothing and seeming lazy. The solution is not to kill morale by firing everyone, but to decisively make cuts in the right places and to give the remainder the opportunity to adapt to the new expected standard...For example, coaches of teams are fired not the entire team. Mississippi State is proving that with the way that Croom is handling that program. I'm thinking that I am going to have to send a copy of "Out of the Crisis" by Deming, to Mr. Melton. For those of you who don't know Mr. Deming is credited with introducing the mangement philosphy introducted to Japan after WWII. He's the only American they've named an award after there...
As a departing note a good leader should be measured by how well organization runs in their abesence... My question to Mr. Melton is how well would your organization run without you making all the calls?
Ugh. Union people defending unannounced mass firings right before Christmas is...just...plain...weird. I have union friends. Might do some poking around and try to figure out why there isn't more outrage.
- Tom Head
yes, guywith, firing a whole department is scorched earth tactics,
makes no sense. As for union people, they are an underdeveloped
resource here, who knows what might work. I am a former state
union worker, on strike once, we didn't get much . But en masse
letting go - not fair to say the least. Let's keep track.
Meantime, Tracy Chapman, "Change." just thought I'd mention that
while I'm here, ha.