Panel upholds punishment of letter-writing firefighter|[10/05/05]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 5, 2005

The demotion and suspension of a 16-year Vicksburg firefighter for writing a letter to the editor has been upheld in a 3-0 vote of the Civil Service Commission.

Lt. James Montgomery, formerly a captain, may appeal the decision to Warren County Circuit Court. His attorney, Lisa Ross of Jackson, did not return phone calls after the commission’s order was made public Tuesday.

At a four-hour hearing on Sept. 28, Ross had called the discipline “political retribution.” Montgomery’s letter, printed in The Vicksburg Post on April 14, opposed the re-election of city officials, disputing that the administration had been supportive of employees.

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Associate City Attorney Walterine Langford argued before the commission that the letter violated civil service rules because it was political. In their order, Commissioners Clyde Harris and Janice Carstafhnur and Chairman Joe Graham agree.

The “unanimous decision of the commission was that James Montgomery … was involved in political activity in violation of the Rules of Civil Service as set forth by the Vicksburg Civil Service Commission and the Mississippi Code of 1972, as amended,” the order said.

Montgomery’s letter followed one from resident Lisa Langley, printed April 10, that praised Vicksburg Mayor Laurence Leyens, then seeking re-election, for rewarding city employees with pay raises. Montgomery’s letter refuted her statement.

“It may be true for all the department heads, but it surely isn’t true for the vast majority of the city employees, especially for the fire department,” the letter said. “I am a captain on the fire department and I haven’t received any such pay raise! In fact, none of the captains, lieutenants or privates have received any such pay raises.”

Leyens testimony and that of other city officials centered on the credibility of Montgomery’s letter, asserting raises had been awarded and pointing out that Montgomery doesn’t reside in the city limits as his letter indicated.

Leyens and South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman were re-elected and voted in August to uphold the action recommended by Fire Chief Keith Rogers. Newly elected North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield dissented from that vote and testified Sept. 28 that while false information shouldn’t have been presented, the matter had become personal as opposed to professional with Leyens.

Rogers declined comment on the commission vote. “Like I said in the hearing, this action against Mr. Montgomery was a difficult decision to make,” Rogers said. “But I think it would be inappropriate to discuss this personnel matter in The Vicksburg Post before I’ve had a chance to see the order.”

Leyens said Montgomery should be happy he still has a job. What he did “is against civil service law,” Leyens said. “We could have easily terminated him but we didn’t. His letter was full of lies, it was clearly political, and it was clearly against the law. He is lucky he still has a job.”

Leyens also had words for Mayfield. “I am very disappointed that Mr. Mayfield is playing politics when the facts are as clear as they are,” he said. “He wants to get people on his side so he can run for mayor one day. I am extremely disappointed that he made up stuff and testified to it.”

Personnel actions taken by city officials are decided after discussions in closed sessions. No public record of the actions is made unless or until fire or police officers, who are civil service employees, file an appeal. Commissioners hear testimony in public, deliberate privately and then issue rulings within 10 days.