An attempt to restore a returning military veteran to her former county job failed in a 2-3 vote before the Pike County Board of Supervisors on Friday and will likely go to court.
Former sheriff’s deputy fiscal officer Raven Ashley is seeking to return to a comparable position after being deployed overseas. Instead she was offered positions of patrol officer or corrections officer, which she declined.
On Friday, Supervisor Tazwell Bowsky offered a motion to give Ashley a job similar to what she had before, or a year’s pay at her former salary. Board president Sam Hall seconded the motion, but it failed when Supervisors Robert Accardo, Lee Fortenberry and Jake Gazzo opposed.
The issue got off to a rocky start before that when Hall said Ashley wanted to address the board.
Accardo said the matter should be handled in executive session since it involved a former employee and potential litigation — the same argument supervisors had in previous meetings.
“It’s her right to ask a question,” Hall said. “Can she make a statement to the board? Because if not, we’ve got a problem.”
Board attorney Wayne Dowdy read from the state open meetings law which allows boards to go into executive session to discuss prospective litigation.
Said Accardo, “The 800-pound gorilla in the room is that there’s potential litigation.”
Hall protested that the board had never given Ashley an answer to her request for an administrative job.
Accardo made a motion to enter executive session and Gazzo seconded, calling the issue a personnel matter.
Ashley countered that she is no longer a county employee, and Hall expressed frustration with the process.
“People need to know,” Hall said. “People are calling me wanting to know.”
Accardo said, “If you want to have a press conference, please do it after the meeting.”
Hall flared. “Don’t play with me. I don’t play.”
Fortenberry noted that Ashley was not on the agenda, but county administrator Tami Dangerfield pointed out that the board traditionally recognizes members of the public whether they’re on the agenda or not.
The board temporarily dropped the matter, then entered executive session at the end of the meeting to continue the discussion.
Ashley states her case
While supervisors conferred, Ashley spoke with the Enterprise-Journal about her situation.
She’s 28 years old, an honor graduate of South Pike High School and a magna cum laude graduate of Tougaloo College.
“I joined the Air Force Air National Guard in November of 2014, and I’ve been serving for 51⁄2 years working as a Security Force Specialist. I started working at the Pike County Sheriff’s Office in April 2016 as a Deputy Fiscal Officer,” Ashley said.
On July 15, 2019, the military sent her overseas to Qatar in the Middle East, where she spent 189 days, returning to the States at the end of January.
She reapplied to the sheriff’s office on Feb. 3 and was told she could return to work, but when she did so on March 9, she was offered either a patrol officer or corrections officer position.
“I declined,” Ashley said. “That wasn’t what I was doing prior to when I left. I would have been appreciative of anything in human resources or administration, but I was not offered those positions.”
She plans to press her case with the help of the U.S. Department of Labor, an officer from which has already contacted supervisors.
“I went overseas and I came back to this situation, which is very hurtful,” Ashley said, tearing up. “At the end of the day I’m fighting not for me but for any veteran that might be in a similar situation.”
She cited both state law and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act as supporting her position.
According to state law, employees back from military leave shall “be restored to the positions held by them when ordered to duty, or a position of like seniority, status and pay.”
Attorney says litigation likely
When supervisors came out of executive session, Bowsky’s motion to give Ashley a comparable job or year’s pay failed.
Asked to explain the county’s position, Dowdy said the state law Ashley cited dates to 1944 and was geared toward World War II veterans.
Dowdy cited another state law that says a returning veteran seeking job reinstatement must prove that “there was a reasonable expectation that the employment would be continuous and for an indefinite time.”
“As it stands, this matter is destined for court,” Dowdy said.
After the meeting, Sheriff James Brumfield declined to comment since the case involves “potential litigation.”
Ashley’s former job supervisor Warren Ellis Gilmore, who served as fiscal officer under former sheriff Kenny Cotton, contacted the Enterprise-Journal to speak on Ashley’s behalf.
Gilmore said he knew there was a possibility there would be a new sheriff when Ashley returned from deployment, but believed she would be entitled to return to her job based on state and federal law and county policy.
“If those protections don’t exist, she’s not the only veteran that’s going to be working for the state, that’s going to be working for the county. Veterans need to know that,” Gilmore said, calling the situation “a shame.”
Gilmore also said that the county attorney or district attorney is supposed to represent Ashley in her claim at no cost according to state law.
“I served as her supervisor. She’s never had not one strike on her record as far as not being able to do the job,” Gilmore said.
“She just did her job. She served her country.”