July 12, 2013 10:13:38 AM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
Starkville aldermen dismissed Chief Administrative Officer Lynn Spruill last week despite receiving consistently high performance marks from her elected bosses in 2010 and 2012, internal city documents show.
The city's two performance appraisals averaged the participating aldermen's and mayor's assessment of Spruill and other department heads on a 1-5-point score for nine criteria and an overall rating. She earned an overall designation of "above average" in both studies and never earned below the same ranking for all nine criteria.
Specifically, the report graded her for management qualities, goal orientation, communication, expertise, loyalty, initiative, cost consciousness, responsiveness and relationships.
The Dispatch approached Spruill Thursday and asked to view her evaluation reports. She consented. The Dispatch did not seek, nor was given access to any other department heads' or city employees' job performance or personnel records.
Both reports provided comment sections for each individual criterion, as well as suggestions for improving Spruill's performance. The 2010 report did not contain improvement comments, but the 2012 report listed two suggestions: "(1) Exercise more patience when dealings (sic) with emerging issues. (2) I believe a less-biased view of all department heads is needed. She is very loyal. But the board not only needs loyalty, we need her help in realizing staffing issues."
Other comments described Spruill as a well-respected employee who would do whatever was needed to meet goals with an excellent response.
The 2010 report's comments on Spruill's loyalty commended her for embracing and adapting to a new administration, while comments on her initiative said she has "been a victim of being blamed for issues not of her own making."
It is not known which former or current aldermen contributed input to composite score, but all three representatives remaining from the previous term - Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins and Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn - effectively fired Spruill on July 2. It is also unknown if Mayor Parker Wiseman weighed in on her performance in either report.
It's also unknown who contributed comments to the report, but former Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk said she, Carver and Vaughn served on a committee last term which developed the performance appraisals. Board minutes confirm aldermen met behind closed doors both years to discuss the evaluations.
The reports, she said, were developed to provide aldermen with a tool for future appointments, pay increases and other personnel matters.
"Of the comments, I didn't see anything that would warrant termination. Those were honest comments meant to make that position as strong as possible. While we didn't agree on everything, I would have never even considered the kind of action the current board took," Sistrunk said. "You're going to have moments of agreement and disagreement in terms of the dynamics of an organization, but you have to look at it in the context of the bigger picture. You can't single out an event and make long-term decisions.
"This board that's seated now will have a different dynamic than the last board, and that dynamic will change over time. When making that decision on July 2, they didn't know how they will work with Lynn," she added. "If I have disappointment, it's with all aldermen - new and old - who voted (to fire Spruill)."
Board records show Spruill received the Employee of the Month award from the city in June 2011. The plaque, which at the time Perkins said he personally paid for, recognized the chief administrative officer for her job performance and leadership.
In that meeting, Perkins called Spruill "a perfect choice" for the honor and said she always performed her work in an exemplary manner.
"This employee has been a tremendous and valuable asset to the great city of Starkville. This wonderful employee is very dependable, resourceful and knowledgeable, and has an impeccable character and integrity," he said in the meeting before presenting the award to Spruill. "This employee has been a great public servant ... and has made many contributions to the progress and welfare of our city. (We) sincerely appreciate and thank this employee for (her) perseverance, commitment ... and professionalism."
It was Carver's July 2 motion which ousted the chief administrative officer from her position. His action was supported by four other aldermen: Lisa Wynn, David Little, Perkins and Vaughn. The two dissenting board members - Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker and Ward 5 Alderman Scott Maynard - opposed Spruill's termination since the board, as a whole, made the decision in only the second day of the new term.
Wiseman issued a promised veto on the matter Tuesday and chastised aldermen for firing Spruill without holding any public or closed-door discussions on her job performance. In his motion, the mayor wrote Spruill "at minimum...deserves to be informed of why she is being fired."
The board's decision to relieve Spruill of her job contradicts how aldermen, including Carver, Perkins and Vaughn, handled department head reappointments in 2009. In that administration's first meeting, the board reappointed Spruill and other key city figures to their jobs with a 90-day review period. Each official was then formally reappointed with little opposition three months later after aldermen discussed personnel matters behind closed doors.
For the most part, aldermen have either not answered phone calls from media outlets or declined comment on the matter when approached for quotes. Carver told the Dispatch his four years gave him enough time to evaluate Spruill's job performance, but the alderman declined to comment further on July 2. He was quoted in other local publications as saying he wanted to bring in someone with a working knowledge of economic development for the position and that Spruill is not a good fit for the current board.
Starkville already contracts with the Joe Max Higgins-led Golden Triangle Development Link for economic development initiatives, and the county is represented by former Mississippi Development Authority Chief Financial Officer Joey Deason. The city also hired William Snowden, the former Tuscaloosa, Ala. director of planning and economic development, as its director of community development in February. Other economic and community development agencies in Oktibbeha County include the Greater Starkville Development Partnership and its sub-groups: the Oktibbeha County Economic Development Authority, Starkville Main Street Association and Starkville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Walker previously said the need for more economic development officials was an empty call, and Maynard said the city's top economic development position is already filled by Wiseman.
City officials also previously expressed concern in finding a viable CAO replacement of Spruill's caliber. The former U.S. Navy pilot previously served as mayor of Addison, Texas. A 2012 study conducted by Mississippi State University's John C. Stennis Institute of Government shows Spruill's $61,169 annual salary falls well below the mean average -- $133,465 - of similar positions' pay rate in cities across the Southeast.
Aldermen could hold a special-call session today and attempt to override the mayor's veto, but it is believed any action will be postponed until July 23 since the mayor and board of aldermen are traveling this weekend to the Gulf Coast for the Mississippi Municipal League annual conference. Supporters have pledged to attend the next meeting and support the embattled CAO.
If the board's will is carried out, the city is expected to delegate her job responsibilities internally until a new hire is made.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch