By CARL SMITH
The Starkville Board of Aldermen voted 4-2 Tuesday to transfer Deputy City Clerk Stephanie Halbert from working with city records to payroll and increase her salary to $32,677.07.
The move goes against board policy which states lateral transfers are to maintain current pay rates, but Mayor Parker Wiseman said Thursday the board is able to supersede the policy if a majority of aldermen agree.
The vacancy was created after the city was hit with an $18,000 Internal Revenue Service penalty when a previous deputy clerk neglected a payroll tax payment in the summer. The matter went unreported until December when the board voted to accept the monthly claims docked with the included fine.
Wiseman said the city accepted the former deputy clerk’s resignation after the error was reported.
The board approved advertising for the position with an annual Salary Grade 8 scale — $24,553.19 (Step 1) to $32,677.07 (Step 10) — on Jan. 3. In a document presented to the board, City Clerk Markeeta Outlaw recommended Halbert for the position at an annual Grade 8, Step 10-B pay rate — $32,677.07. Halbert was on a Grade 8, Step 2 pay scale — $25,289.79 per year — in her previous clerk position.
The Starkville Pay Rate Adjustment Policy included in the board’s Tuesday packet states “When an employee is transferred between departments ... with the same pay grade and salary range (lateral transfer), the pay grade and step of the employee will not be changed.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk amended Halbert’s hire to her previous pay rate. The amendment failed after Wiseman cast his vote, breaking the 3-3 tie. Starkville Chief Administrative Officer Lynn Spruill said the agenda item in its original state was motioned for a vote by Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn and seconded by Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins. The motion passed 4-2, with Sistrunk and Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas casting opposing votes.
“The board sets many internal policies for itself, and it has established personnel policies. Unlike an ordinance where the law has to be changed when there’s a conflict that the board would like to reconcile, the board ultimately has discretion over these policy changes,” Wiseman said. “The board creates those policies on its own, and it can supersede those policies if it chooses to do so.”
Due to the wording of the policy, external applicants were eligible for the full advertised amount while Halbert was not.
“That’s what made this matter a particularly difficult decision because the pay grade that the department head had ultimately recommended was within the range of pay advertised for the position,” Wiseman said. “If it had been an external applicant, the hire would not have run afoul of the policy. In this case you had a full board discussion, and aldermen knew the policy. By the fact of making the decision to make the hire at that salary with knowledge of the policy, the board did elect to supersede the policy. Ultimately, the board is going to give great weight to the recommendation by a department head in making a hire. It’s not an absolute standard, but the board has to consider that a factor in the totality of circumstances.”
Although the board superseded its policy, Wiseman said, it still remains as a guidepost for future decisions.
Sistrunk said she made her amendment to help negate any precedent set by boosting a lateral hire’s pay without firm justification or reasoning.
“There was nothing (from the city clerk) that said ... job responsibilities were changing,” Sistrunk said. “I think she’s a terrific candidate for the job. My interactions with her have all been stellar. Any decision like this we make sets a precedence.”
Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver said he voted against Sistrunk’s amendment and in favor of the general the motion due to the liability the position carries.
“In my opinion, she is taking on more responsibility with this position. If she is going to take on more liability, then that justifies the pay raise,” Carver said.
Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey voted in support of both Sistrunk’s amendment and the general motion.
“I understand exactly where Sandra was coming from in regard to the need to adhere to policies as closely as possible, but the board has on occasions taken routes outside of our policies for various reasons,” Corey said. “The position itself is important and needed to be filled.”
Dumas voted in favor of Sistrunk’s pay-leveling amendment Tuesday and against the overall transfer motion.
“It’s ironic because we talk about fairness. We’ve listened to sermon after sermon about how we can’t do things and how we need to stick to our policies and ordinances, yet this whole idea was brought forth and seconded by the two individuals (Perkins and Vaughn) who typically rant and rave the loudest against the very thing they did on Tuesday night,” Dumas said. “Hopefully over the next year and a half we can get some level of consistency (from board members), whether on employment policies or ditch maintenance.”
Calls to Outlaw, Perkins and Vaughn were not returned by press time.