Meridian in midst of political change

A former Klan stronghold, Meridian was ready for change when Bland, a Democrat, defeated incumbent Cheri Barry to become the city’s first black mayor. But rather than bringing the city together, as stated in his platform, Bland seems to confide in a few people and alienate many.

An astute businessman with a human resources background, Bland has jumped the gun, more than once, particularly when it came to his decision that he would hear the appeals of the Civil Service Commission who were removed.

“The mayor thought it was all in his hands,” Houston said. “But our concerns were, ‘Where are the checks and balances?’ You fired them. And then they have to come and stand before you and plead for their jobs back? That just didn’t make a lot of sense to us.”

The attorney general’s office agreed. An opinion issued by Attorney General Jim Hood determined an outside hearing officer should be appointed to oversee the removal hearing of the commissioners.

Constance Slaughter-Harvey, former assistant secretary of state, served as the hearing officer. After two days of testimony in April, the council agreed to remove John Watts, the commission’s chairman. The vote was 3-2. Bland withdrew removal of the others.

Houston said the removal hearing revealed many problems within the Civil Service Commission, including a lack of training for the commissioners. The city has since formed a blue ribbon committee to assist in that training.

“Moving forward, we saw there were some things broken within the system,” Houston said. “And I don’t think it’s the people. I think it’s the process that we really need to address. And by addressing those things, if we can do it together, it’s going to make our city so much stronger.”

Bland still defends his actions, stating that in some cases, such as the removal of the civil service commissioners, immediate action was necessary, noting alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act, failure to follow blind testing protocol and improperly curving of a civil service test.

“Everything I’ve had to make a decision on, I didn’t take it lightly,” he said. “And maybe I could have communicated with the council. But once I received this information, I had to act on it as quickly as I could. But looking back, I could have told them … communication could be improved.”

As with any new mayor, Bland vowed to put people in place who could help him reach his goals for the city. But when he fired Skipper — after confirming his position at a prior meeting — city council members began to question his judgment.

“He got rid of the parks and recreation director that had been there a long time,” Houston said. “But he had somebody ready to fill that spot. With the chief financial officer, there was no one ready. It was all of a sudden, and no one saw that coming. Our finances are well in order and have been for some time under Mr. Skipper’s leadership. And I was uncomfortable with (his dismissal) with this position being so vital. We’re getting ready to set our budget. We have different bond issues … Mr. Skipper wore a lot of hats, and we have no one in place or someone that had been tracking his steps.”