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Mayor seeks pay raise for 26 city employees

The COVID-19 pandemic still raging in Alabama has left countless victims in its wake and local governments are surely among them – as businesses have closed or cut back hours and services, while customers have simultaneously cut spending and heeded health orders to stay at home, cities large and small have seen slumping revenues from sales taxes, lodging taxes, gas taxes and more – but, at least in Selma, pay raises for city employees are not off the table.

Effective Jan. 1, 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor issued new salary guidelines for “executive, administrative or professional” employees, which stated that salaried employees must be compensated at a rate of no less than $684 per week, which breaks down to roughly $17.10 per hour for a 40-hour work week, to qualify as an “exempt employee” – employees making less than that amount are to be paid hourly or have their salaries increased to meet the newly-imposed threshold.

On April 8, Selma City Attorney Major Madison addressed a letter to Selma City Treasurer Ronita Wade instructing her to implement pay changes for four city employees, which he said were needed to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA), adding that all city workers “deserve to be paid a fair and livable wage.”

“In light of the pandemic and the potential for consequential loss of tourist and local tax revenue, the salary increases were not a wise move,” said Selma City Councilwoman Miah Jackson, who has regularly railed against city financial practices under Selma Mayor Darrio Melton’s administration.

Madison’s letter states that employees in each of the following positions will see their pay increased to the equivalent of $17.10 per hour: the executive assistant in the mayor’s office, up from $16.58 per hour; an accountant position in the city’s Finance Department, up from $13.68 per hour; the project compliance officer in the city’s Planning and Development Department, up from $15.01 per hour; and the historic preservation coordinator in the city’s Planning and Development Department, up from $13.03 per hour.

However, a March 24 memo from Selma Mayor Darrio Melton to Selma City Council President Corey Bowie puts the number of affected city employees at 26, with pay rates ranging from $7.93 per hour to $16.58 per hour.

In that letter, sent roughly 10 days after the coronavirus outbreak touched down in Alabama, Melton called for the council to approve the changes during an upcoming meeting.

Only two days after Melton’s memo went out, Jackson responded by requesting a “comprehensive report on the employment status” of all of the 26 employees supposedly affected by the law, as well as a “detailed analysis” showing how the decision was made.

“I felt it was necessary for the council to be able to review the mayor’s salary adjustment recommendations prior to any changes,” Jackson said. “Of course, by law, the council is required to approve any salary changes and this has not happened. The mayor continues to act cavalierly and as a lone ranger in city government, further dividing and unhinging state laws, municipal ordinances and the ‘spirit of cooperation’ he so frequently touts. The unfortunate consequences of his latest divisive move will further harm the morale of city employees and create a deeper rift with the council.”

Jackson wrote again to Melton, copying Wade, the council and Madison on the correspondence, on April 16, bemoaning the fact that the requested information had still not been submitted to the council, which is tasked with approving changes to city employee salaries.

Jackson also took Madison to task in that email, stating that it is “uncharacteristic” of city attorneys to “not reply to a request by a council member.”

“As city attorney, you represent the City of Selma and its interests, not the mayor or the council,” Jackson said in the email. “The council must be made aware of information important to decision making that will impact the city. This is at least the second time a financial-related decision has been made without the council’s awareness until after the fact.”

Jackson added that the “appropriate manner” for handling such issues is to correspond with the mayor and council simultaneously and promptly respond to requests for information, adding that such “deference” will be expected from the attorney’s office moving forward.

Shortly after Madison’s memo to Wade was received, the treasurer responded by noting that she could not make salary changes and the attorney should contact the city’s Human Resources Department, “i.e. mayor’s office,” which is currently under the supervision of Interim Human Resources Director Saprina Simmons.

Despite the confusion – Wade has noted that she doesn’t have the authority to make such changes to salaries and Jackson has noted that the council has ultimate authority over salaries and wages – some of the increases, along with back pay, have already been paid out.

In an email to Janice Stewart, Accounting Supervisor in the city’s Finance Department, Wade took exception to the fact that Stewart took “the liberty” of compensating herself and three other employees – Notokozo Pamacheche, Teresa Carter and Latrice Tate – with back pay resulting from the salary increase “implemented by… Simmons.”

Wade first notes that an email sent out by Simmons to her and other affected parties was sent to an inoperable email address.

“I do not know the intent of [Simmons] erroneously sending this correspondence to a defunct email address that [has] not been utilized in well over a year,” Wade said in the email to Stewart.

Wade then takes Stewart to task for failing to bring payroll changes to her for approval, noting that she has previously been “consistent in doing so,” but failed to notify her of the more than $3,600 in back payments made to the four employees.

Wade noted in the email that she would like to pursue disciplinary action against Stewart, who works in Wade’s department, but notes the “high probability” that such action would be overturned by Melton’s administration.

According to a breakdown of “unauthorized” FSLA changes made for the pay date April 17, the total annual increase for the four employees’ new wage would be just under $20,200 – none of the emails provide specifics on the other city employees reported to be affected by the labor law.

For Wade, the pay changes are likely unnecessary.

“It is my understanding that the city could have opted to make those affected hourly employees, in lieu of giving them raises,” said Wade. “The frustration comes when the mayor’s office and my staff consistently violate legislative law. However, this information has been placed in the hands of the city council to pursue further action.”

Jackson agrees, noting that “the raises were unnecessary per federal law and were implemented and announced” without input from the treasurer or council.

“The new FSLA ruling that increased the exempt salary threshold only requires that a person who earns less than the new threshold amount must be considered ‘non-exempt’ and, therefore, entitled to overtime pay for any hours worked per week that exceeds 40 hours,” Jackson, currently a Selma mayoral candidate, said. “With the strict time controls the mayor has implemented with employees who work in city hall, it would have been my recommendation to simply reclassify the employees to non-exempt and retained their pay rate.”

For her part, Jackson noted that, had standard procedure been followed and the mayor and council worked collaboratively on the issue, a more reasonable approach could have been negotiated.

“Purporting that the raises are required by federal law was either a falsehood or a failure to comprehend the law,” Jackson said. “Had he brought the matter to the council, guidance or recommendations would have been negotiated and affordable compliance with the FLSA would have been achieved. The mayor promptly and consistently points his finger at the council for a lack of participation, however, at every turn, he refuses to engage with the council to remedy issues in which the council must lawfully be engaged.”