A newly formed city of Mobile department tasked with looking into complaints against employees has opened more than 20 investigations since January.
The various investigations against non-police personnel have led to at least one resignation. Former mayoral candidate and City Councilman John Peavy, who had been serving as the appointed director of public services, resigned amid an investigation. The city confirmed the investigation was non-criminal, but would not release any other details. Peavy told Lagniappe he was advised not to speak to the press.
Led by retired FBI agent Robert Lasky, the city’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) has opened between 20 and 25 investigations on both merit-system and non-merit system employees since it was formed. Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s chief of staff, James Barber, chalked up the high level of complaints to the newness of the department.
“It does appear we’re seeing complaints we didn’t necessarily [see] before,” he said. “If you’ve never had an effective means of redress, your boss is cussing you, threatening to beat you up every day. So, now you hear about this and you can finally lodge a complaint.”
Complaints can come from co-workers, superiors, subordinates and members of the public, Barber said. OPR includes sworn officers who, as members of internal affairs with the Mobile Police Department, have worked on similar cases for years, Barber, a former police chief, said. The office handles non-criminal complaints against all city employees, not just police officers.
“Having grown with that model and coming into the position I’m in — and the mayor noticed it too — most of our departments are not trained in investigations and they’re not trained, you know, there are certain rights afforded public employees, due process rights,” he said. “After several incidents of either failure to take further action, failure to take proper supervision or even failing to provide even a basic investigation on something, or taking inappropriate disciplinary action, we looked at Montgomery and Montgomery has a unit called City Investigations.”
For a complaint to be forwarded to OPR, Barber said, it can’t just be someone who is unhappy. The city employee has to have done something that rises to a level of being against the city’s code of conduct.
“So, we formalized that process with the entire city just like Montgomery did,” Barber said. “Not only does Montgomery handle that, they handle claims against the city, like damage to your car, or personal injury. We looked at that and decided to do that as well, to centralize that process as sort of a liaison between our third-party administrators for damage claims or workman’s compensation claims so it actually acts like a checkpoint between us and the attorneys we hire to handle these things.”
The office simply handles investigations, Lasky said. Punishment following an investigation rests with a superior.
“OPR does no disciplinary action,” he said. “All we do is investigate the facts and determine if a particular rule was violated or not and then we pass it back to the division head for their determination on discipline.”
The city also allows department heads to specify what should happen to an employee while an investigation is ongoing. In some cases, employees are placed on paid administrative leave while OPR investigates complaints. Barber said since a number of police officers had recently come back from administrative leave, there was currently one city employee on leave.
Lasky, the one-time special agent in charge of the Mobile Division of the FBI, and former chief of staff for the agency’s assistant director in Washington, D.C., handling OPR investigations, is paid $132,458 per year, which is the same amount Police Chief Paul Prine is paid.
Lasky’s job is classified under police administration, according to city documents, and he leads a staff of 14 employees, including sworn officers and a firefighter.
The new OPR process raises questions for Ed Smith, an attorney who has represented a number of city employees. Smith said the new department is not necessarily a bad thing and can be successful, as other cities have done well with a similar model. However, Smith said, employees need to be told about the new process.
“I think the city should’ve been more transparent about what it is,” he said.
Smith suggested the city add an employee representative to the process to advocate on their behalf.
Barber said the city held training for employees on the new department and sent out information about it. OPR is also working on a policy of rules and regulations, which will be released as part of the mayor’s next 100-day plan.
“The problem is there’s no one place that you can go to get everything and we’re compiling it,” Lasky said. “A lot of the stuff we’re compiling for the employee handbook is already in existence. All we’re doing is taking from here or another place and putting it in one document so the employees have everything.”
OPR was not debated, discussed or voted up or down by members of the Mobile City Council, and Lasky didn’t legally have to be appointed to his position. Barber said the department will be its own cost center within the fiscal year 2023 budget, which the council is set to take up in September.
As for citizen complaints, there is now a form on the city’s website where residents of Mobile can submit complaints to OPR. It is under the OPR page at cityofmobile.org.
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