McComb’s latest high-profile appointment illustrates underlying issues in city government, including high turnover in important positions and the influence of elected officials in day-to-day operations as the city works its way through existing financial woes.
In a special meeting on Wednesday, the board accepted the resignation of interim city administrator Henry Green, who previously worked as the planning and zoning department director, and appointed another City Hall staffer, utility billing manager Ebony Ross, to the job.
The move sparked a heated discussion as the board met behind closed doors Tuesday to discuss filling the vacancy left by Green’s departure after just one week in to the job.
In leaving the position, Green wrote to the board, “It is an honor and privilege to have been appointed as interim city administrator. This speaks volumes to my leadership and my decision making to be entrusted by the board with the entire city.
“I assure you I am the best candidate for the position, but under the circumstances, I do not believe this is the correct decision for my career path at this time.”
During the discussion, Selectman Devante Johnson asked Lockley if he would be interested in a dual role as mayor and city administrator, but Lockley was reluctant.
Selectman Michael Cameron pressed the issue before the board chose the new interim city administrator
“Having been criticized for my involvement in day-to-day operations, I am a little hesitant in accepting a dual role, but if it is the desire of the board, I will accept it,” Lockley said.
Brock made the motion last week to terminate former city administrator Dirkland Smith, whom Green replaced.
After the board accepted Green’s resignation with a 4-1 vote on Tuesday, it voted 3-2 to hire Ross at Brock’s suggestion.
Selectman Ted Tullos and Cameron opposed.
“I don’t think she knows what she is doing. … They know she’s not qualified, but when you run off people who are doing a good job because they are doing a good job, this is what they get,” Tullos said Wednesday.
Brock said he discussed the possibility of Ross’ appointment with her, and he said he thinks Ross will do a great job in the position.
“I think the interim administrator is going to do well. She knows how to find out anything she needs, and she has a majority of the board that will support her 100%,” Brock said. “I just thought she could do the job as city administrator. She came from dispatch, and she just knows how to multi-task and get things down without things getting under her skin.”
He said he chose Ross over others, including City Clerk Nicole Garner, who Ross said had a full plate in her position, and Human Resources Director Donna Davis, who was on vacation during the vote.
“I discussed it with her. We had several candidates ... We needed somebody with the confidence that night,” he said.
Lockley said he was left out of the decision-making process and did not know that Ross was a candidate for the position before the hiring.
“It was a decision that was made by the board members, and they did not discuss it with me,” he said.
The job of city administrator — the highest ranking appointed position in city government — comes with a lot of responsibility and at a time when McComb is struggling with budget shortfalls and the completion of audits from previous fiscal years.
All of these issues culminated in an explosive executive session on Tuesday, with multiple board members screaming at each other.
Lockley and board members would not speak about the specifics of the meeting or why voices were raised, but the audible shouting indicated some discussion of whether Lockley — a former city administrator himself — would help train Ross, but Brock denied that.
“Executive session was out of control and an unexpected situation. We settled everything but not to the level of my expectations,” Brock said. “I expected a better, orderly outcome. Disrespectful shouting matches are unacceptable.”
The suggestion that Lockley would take on such a role contradicts previous criticisms of him leveled by board members, including Brock and Johnson.
In April 2019, they suggested Lockley should stay out of day-to-day operations.
“You’re in day-to-day operations more than anyone around the table,” Johnson told Lockley at the time.
Lockley rebuked the statement, adding that Johnson was “the most involved” board member when it came to injecting himself in city operations.
Brock said in the April 2019 meeting that everyone on the board should stay out of day-to-day operations, which is in stark contrast to the move he made a year later, removing Smith, former administrator, from an MLK gym design panel and placing himself and Johnson on it instead.
Brock said he doesn’t believe the city has a high turnover rate and feels that the recent terminations of Smith and former police chief Damian Gatlin do not affect the board’s hiring process and will not scare away potential candidates.
Still, Ross’s appointment makes her the fourth person to hold the city administrator’s job in less than a year, and former police chief Damian Gatlin was on the job for less than two years before he was fired in April with no explanation.
“Mr. Dirkland Smith was underperforming, and there were some conflicts with day-to-day operations,” Brock said in justifying the personnel changes, adding the board chose its administration when officials were elected, which ended relationships with previous department heads.
Attempts to reach Johnson for comment were unsuccessful.