MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A Memphis city councilman is concerned too many city employees accused of misconduct are not facing the consequences they deserve.
Councilman Worth Morgan said he started investigating the Civil Service Commission after hearing about a Memphis police officer accused of having a sexual relationship with a former stripper turned witness to a murder he was investigating.
“That was the thread I started pulling on that revealed, I think, quite a few problems with our process,” said Morgan.
Lt. Eric Kelly wasn’t charged criminally, but before he faced any consequences at work, he retired, leaving behind a career full of controversy.
WREG found out he’s accused of violating policy around 40 times.
In 1997, supervisors called his pattern of behavior “unacceptable” when he reportedly beat a juvenile at Ridgecrest Apartments.
He was fired, but was able to get his job back through the civil service commission.
“We have 40 different boards and commissions that people sit on, and we need to do a little more due diligence on the ones that have a serious impact. I think civil service is one of them,” said Morgan.
What is the Civil Service Commission?
If a city employee is disciplined, demoted or terminated and wants to fight it, one option is taking their case to the Civil Service Commission.
It consists of 14 members. They were all appointed by the mayor and then approved by the council.
A commissioner hears the case and determines to sustain or reverse the city’s action. “It’s the opportunity to try to get employment issues resolved before going to court,” said attorney Jeffrey Land, who sits on the commission.
Land said he examines both arguments in each case and can even subpoena people if needed. “It’s not to say that every time an employee is terminated or demoted that I reverse it. Every time I think it’s wrong I reverse it,” he explained.
Each ruling can be appealed to the full Civil Service Commission or in court.
“There is a particular city council member that doesn’t understand that,” Land said. “He feels the city should be able to unilaterally make decisions that it wants.”
On June 22, WREG requested more information about the Civil Service Commission’s rulings over the years to see how often they support the city versus the employee.
It’s information Morgan told us he’s also trying to collect, except he says it’s taking a while due to the record keeping.
“One of the trends I found out is that we’re not good at keeping records. That goes back through previous administrations and decades,” said Morgan. “We’re finding hand-written notes in filing cabinets and trying to pull it together.”
One case Morgan did uncover was that of Memphis Fire Lt. Valerie Jackson. Her employment files that state a car crashed outside her fire station in April 2018. She reportedly went to the scene without her gear and then left before it was over.
Jackson claims she left because she left food on the stove at the station. She was already on probation and was demoted.
However in August 2019, the Civil Service Commission reinstated her and gave her full back pay.
Land ruled on the case and wrote “at most, a written reprimand would have been sufficient to train and groom a young lieutenant.”
“I feel confident that I’ve rendered the correct decision in every case that I’ve done,” he said.
Police, fire unions differ on commission
Thomas Malone, president of the Memphis Firefighters Association, believes the Civil Service process is fair and timely, especially after Memphis voters approved changes to the commission in 2014 that helped alleviate backlogs. Instead of requiring multiple commissioners to review a case, one commissioner with legal experience could hear the case alone.
“I don’t see anything wrong with the system. It took a lot of people sitting down and discussing what our problems were and what it took to solve our problems,” said Malone.
Memphis Police Association President Mike Williams said he feels the process favors the employer.
“[The city] gets to appoint the individuals that are going to be sitting and making the decisions on what’s going to happen,” he said. Williams said a lot of times, they choose other ways to fight the city’s actions like the grievance process.
“The only thing with the Civil Service is that they can’t cut it up. It’s either all for the employee or all for the employer. Therefore if the employer does not have a strong case, then the employee is going to win,” he said.
However, Morgan feels the current climate hurts the employees doing right and reform is needed.
“When we identify an employee who is acting badly, we out to be able to fire them,” he said. “Part of that negotiation needs to be a deep hard look at how we handle discipline and the review process.”
He plans on bringing up the Civil Service Commission at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
“Restructure needs to be done, and if any of the restructures needs a referendum, that’s going to be decided very soon,” Morgan said.