Merit board votes to hear Wall case

The Blount County Merit Board voted 3-2 to take jurisdiction over the case of dismissed city of Oneonta employee Geneva Wall. Removed in December of 2015, Wall has fought that action within city channels and beyond.

Wall had appealed to the merit board after the Oneonta City Council had upheld Mayor Ross Norris’s dismissal action. The city holds that Wall was a department head and does not enjoy merit protection.

In January, the board, rejecting city personnel policy, agreed to hear Wall’s case. The city appealed that decision to circuit court, where Judge Steven King remanded the matter, directing the board to accept Oneonta’s personnel handbook as applicable.

Following the judge’s directive, the board, absent member Robert Sanford, considered the question of Wall’s actual status. In that May 18 hearing, the board was divided 2-2 and a follow-up meeting was scheduled to permit Sanford to participate.

Meeting on June 1, board members voted almost immediately to recess into executive session to discuss Wall’s status. With member Brett King absent but having sent word he would arrive later, members moved toward an adjacent room. City attorney Alex Smith challenged the validity of deliberation with only partial participation by King.

With Smith’s challenge, members agreed to await King’s arrival. Following that hour-plus wait, the board then spent another hour in executive session before holding its deciding public vote. Member Gary McGill again joined King in deciding Wall served as a department head; chairman Bill Newman, secretary Tim Frye, and Sanford voted Wall not a department head.

King suggested the board next schedule a hearing on the validity of Wall’s firing. Smith stated his opinion that all merit decisions are subject to appeal and asked time to consult with the Oneonta City Council to see if it wishes to challenge the board vote.

Newman suggested Smith consult with the city and advise the board after the city’s next scheduled meeting (reset for Thursday, June 16, at 5:30 pm) of any appellate plans.

Wall attorney John Saxon labeled the decision “a victory for justice.” Contacted the next day, Smith expressed consternation over the vote but chose not to comment.

Smith released the following statement, “The city respectfully disagrees with the three-member majority of the merit board which determined that Ms. Wall was not a department head and therefore subject to the Blount County Merit Law. The evidence presented at the hearing clearly showed that Ms. Wall was promoted to department head status by Mayor Daryl Ray in 2012, she accepted department head salary and benefits, attended department head meetings and accepted the extra responsibilities associated with being a non-merited department head. In addition, Ms. Wall made a public statement in an interview with a news reporter from a local television station wherein she stated that she ‘had been promoted to department head.’ The truth is the truth. The city is currently considering its appeal options.”