By Cara Zarecor
During a turn of events at last Thursday night’s Gibson County E-911 District Board Meeting, Director Johanna Harrell was ousted after a 6-2 majority vote of all-present board members in favor of her termination.
The meeting, presided over by Chairman James Fountain, began as any other standard, parliamentary procedure meeting. Financials were discussed. Harrell gave her director’s report and introduced five new dispatchers who were present. Old business discussions touched upon setting fees for public records requests, further training for dispatchers and updating the board’s policies and procedures.
New business involved lengthy, unresolved issues of dispatchers’ salaries, radio system costs and upgrades and the pros and cons of attaining “Next Generation 911,” which is a text 911 service now making its way into several Tennessee municipalities.
Committee Chairman and Gibson County Sheriff’s Deputy Lehman Webb was then asked for a committee report. Toward the end of his report, he stood to verbally deliver a scathing letter to the board:
“I’ve given this issue much thought and contemplation. I feel that terminating Johanna Harrell would be the best decision for the citizens and customers of Gibson County, which we serve.
“Although the qualifications Ms. Harrell provided on her application looked great, her actual fulfillment of the office has not lived up to the standards expected by the citizens of Gibson County, multiple agencies we provide a service to or the 911 Board.
“While I have served as a board member, I’ve witnessed our 911 Center lose almost all of its original employees. While I can understand that some employees left for better pay or benefits, I am also aware of several employees that left because of the work environment that Ms. Harrell has created. I have also seen every agency that we serve complain and continue to complain about the service that we provide and that they pay for. Issues that are brought before Ms. Harrell never seem to get resolved.
“One example is the write-ups in one of the employee’s personnel files, which we have reviewed. Even though we continue to receive complaints in regard to this employee, Ms. Harrell’s only response to the need for disciplinary actions is that the board ‘dumped it into’ her lap. As a board member, I do not feel that this is our responsibility. This is a large part of Ms. Harrell’s job and she was hired to fulfill that role. This particular employee had four write-ups in his/her file with no apparent corrective action being done by Ms. Harrell. This, in turn, creates a danger to the citizens and customers of 911.
“I feel that Ms. Harrell has failed to set up good working relationships with our customers. During the interview process, Ms. Harrell was told that the relationship between the 911 Center and the agencies we serve needed to be repaired and maintained. These relationships are very important to all agencies as well as the citizens of Gibson County. Ms. Harrell has failed to repair or maintain these relationships during her time as Director.
“I do not believe that Ms. Harrell has been a good fit for the Gibson County 911 Center. It is my fear that without immediate action, Ms. Harrell’s inability to perform the job she was hired to do will result in the further liability to 911 in this county. Ms. Harrell’s ongoing inability to do her job properly and properly address new issues as they arise will most definitely result in the injury or death of the citizens or employees of an agency in which the 911 provides a service to.
“This continued, blatant disregard for the welfare of the citizens of Gibson County and the employees which 911 provides a service to is unacceptable and will no longer be tolerated. It is with this I make the following motion: I make the motion to terminate Johanna Harrell.”
Board member and Medina Chief of Police Jason Oliver seconded the motion and gave his own account of the failures of Ms. Harrell and her staff. Oliver said that even though he feels that Harrell “is a good person,” his department has received “complaint after complaint after complaint” and that he agreed with everything Webb stated in his letter. He added that the call room is “a mess” and said that he is also disappointed because a recent opportunity to receive training funds was tabled and not seized upon. Because of the 911 Center failures, Oliver said that he is ensnared in a lawsuit that he is not currently allowed to discuss.
Several board members chimed in, stating that they, too, had received complaints; some had received several, one had only received one. Some voiced their concerns about the need for dedicated employees, the stress of the job and the low pay. All seemed to agree that changes needed to be made.
Harrell defended her position when asked to respond. She defended her employees, citing “We are training… people do not like change… this is a stressful job… I’ve tried to take your complaints seriously… I don’t feel that I’ve changed things that much.” She continued by asserting, “Y’all act like I haven’t done my job. I’ve done my job. I’m doing my job everyday…. I feel that I’m doing a good job. Maybe all of you don’t feel that… There was a lot to do here when I came here, as all of you know, we were about to be taken over by the state. I worked very hard with all of you to get us out of that hole. So I’ve done all that you have asked me to do and then some. I’m sorry if it wasn’t what you all thought. But I’m looking to go forward… training was where we were trying to improve… I’m sorry. I’m a forward-thinking director. If that’s not what you want, then maybe Lehman (Webb) is correct. Maybe I’m not the director for you.”
Oliver spoke up again to disagree with Harrell’s assertion of having not changed things. He addressed a long list of mistakes and delays made by the 911 Center under Harrell’s direction. He made his final point to the board by saying, “The No. 1 thing that they always say is that we don’t know how busy it is up here. And we don’t. It’s extremely busy. But they also don’t understand that they are in a safe building, and we’re out there in the danger zone and we need somebody to answer the radio. And it’s happened to me, it can happen to you, and when it does it is frustrating and it is very dangerous.”
Gibson County Sheriff Paul Thomas said that overall he was not happy with the service.
“People call me at my office all the time wanting to know why deputies did this or didn’t do that, or didn’t show up or what took so long,” he said. “And then there are the emails that my deputies send me that I get in the middle of the night where something happened or I come into work and they’re (the complaints) in my mailbox outside my door where they’ve typed something up and left it for me. It’s relentless.”
As each board member was called upon to cast his vote, some expressed grievances about having to make the difficult decision, calling Harrell a friend. One board member said that he felt the decision was premature. Another said that he’d not gotten more than four hours of sleep per night for the past four months due to the ongoing problems and not knowing any other way to correct them.
The motion for Harrell’s “immediate termination” passed with Webb, Oliver, Bryan Cathey, Rickey Graves, Andy Carlton and Tommy Litton voting in favor. Austin Lewis and Teco Fuchs voted against the motion.
Fountain called for a half-hour recess while he and bookkeeping board member Kenneth McEwen helped Harrell gather her personal belongings and escorted her out of the building. When the meeting reconvened, the board briefly discussed a contingency plan while an interim director is sought. Dispatchers, fully supported and reassured by the board, will continue to come to work as scheduled and should problems arise, they are to call Fountain. McEwen will handle day-to-day paperwork.
Frequent board meetings are expected as the search for an interim director, followed by a new permanent director, take place. The next meeting was slated for Monday, Oct. 14.