JONESBORO, Ark. – A Jonesboro city council member is calling for an independent investigation after a city employee was fired for speaking at a city meeting but the city is defending the decision.
Rachel Anderson, senior video analyst at the Jonesboro Police Department, was fired this week after speaking at a public meeting in opposition of a bond issue backed by the mayor at a November 7 public meeting.
In a letter sent to city officials and media outlets Thursday morning, November 16, City Councilman L.J. Bryant wrote, “I have a heavy heart based upon something I have learned that has happened in city government regarding former JPD employee Rachel Anderson being fired for speaking at a City Council meeting.”
“A city employee should be free to address the council on their own time,” Bryant wrote. “The council needed to know Rachel’s comments before the council potentially spent millions of dollars on something that might not be warranted per her perspective.”
Anderson spoke on Tuesday, November 7 at a public hearing about a pending bond issue proposed by Mayor Harold Copenhaver after months of meetings with department heads. The mayor is proposing raising $17.5 million through franchise fees collected by the city from public utilities. The money would be used to fund a variety of projects, including the creation of a new E911 Dispatch and Real-Time Crime Center (RTCC). The $17.5 million revenue bond is part of a $40 million proposal that would affect public safety, infrastructure, parks, and quality of life in Jonesboro.
While speaking during public comments, Anderson said video analysts should be situated near detectives and not dispatch. Anderson says the RTCC spends the majority of their time assisting in investigations and not in real-time crime dispatch, an assertion disputed by city officials. Point blank, Anderson said that “we do not want this new building.”
Acknowledging Anderson’s remarks, Mayor Copenhaver promptly responded with a “Duly noted” as she concluded.
Bryant commended Anderson’s professional conduct, emphasizing her factual presentation and lack of personal attacks.
However, a subsequent disciplinary letter outlining the reasons for Anderson’s dismissal cited violations of city handbook policies and JPD regulations. It also mentioned complaints regarding the alleged misuse of her take-home unit – a curiously-timed allegation she was exonerated for after an internal investigation.
On the evening of November 7, 2023 there was a public hearing on the Bond issue that the city was proposing. You came to this meeting and began your comments by identifying yourself and that you are the senior video analyst of the Real Time Crime Center, therefore the comments you made from that point on were considered to be from a city employee standpoint and speaking on behalf of your division of the department. Upon review, your actions / comments have been determined to have violated City of Jonesboro handbook and JPD policy and the Civilian Code of Ethics.
In addition there have been several complaints on your misuse of your take home unit. Those actions also constitute violations of JPD policy.
Your actions have undermined the trust and confidence that the City has in your current position. As a result effective immediately you are terminated from the City of Jonesboro.
-signed Rick Elliott (Disciplinary Letter)
Anderson, who has worked at JPD for five years, is the mind behind the popular JPD Facebook page that has amassed almost 70,000 followers with entertaining, funny and thoughtful posts about local police matters.
Councilman Bryant expressed dismay, labeling Anderson as an exceptional employee and urging against repercussions due to political beliefs.
City Communications Director Bill Campbell acknowledged Anderson’s popularity within the city but defended the decision, stating her remarks were introduced as a city employee, not a private citizen. He specifically added that Anderson does not live in the city limits and therefore, was not speaking as a city resident.
“The city attorney’s office reviewed the decision and approved it,” Campbell said. “This particular incident, she spoke as a city employee and not as a private citizen. She spoke about things she was not up to date on, she was disrespectful to the chain of command, disrespectful to those who had been involved with it, and disrespected proper authorities, which is especially bad among first responders. All are violations of both city handbook and police department procedure and guidelines. The handbook also says it’s improper to undermine the chain of command in public speech.”
But Campbell said everyone he has met likes Rachel and that no one inside the mayor’s office was angry at her. He said they were disappointed that she “acted unprofessionally.”
NEA Report specifically asked if Mayor Copenhaver made the decision for Anderson to be fired.
“After discussion with police leadership, it was determined that Ms. Anderson violated the police policy and procedures manual, and the mayor agreed this was the appropriate course of action,” Campbell said. “It was an executive decision across the board.”
Campbell also addressed councilman Bryant’s Thursday morning email to the press and calls for an independent investigation, calling it “performative.”
“LJ was explained by the city attorney all of this and why it happened,” Campbell said. “Some of the things he calls for to be done are performative, because they’re not appropriate and are actually redundant. This is the conclusion of the city attorney’s office, which is already independent. She’s elected and hires her own staff. They can have a dissenting opinion and they did not.”
Full Text of LJ Bryant’s Email:
To Whom it May Concern:
I have a heavy heart based upon something I have learned that has happened in city government regarding former JPD employee Rachel Anderson being fired for speaking at a City Council meeting.
City government is interesting in the sense that our employees are also our constituents. Our employees have First Amendment rights like all citizens. City employees should of course use their chain of command along with policy & procedures when dealing with routine personnel issues. However, her comments weren’t about routine matters. We have had many city employees address the council before even in uniform advocating for matters before the council. Are employees only allowed to address the council if they share the same position as the Mayor’s administration?
A city employee should be free to address the council on their own time. The council needed to know Rachel’s comments before the council potentially spent millions of dollars on something that might not be warranted per her perspective.
Is the Mayor’s administration in its legal rights to fire Rachel Anderson for speaking to the City Council or is Rachel Anderson protected either as a whistleblower or within her First Amendment rights?
I call upon the City of Jonesboro Human Resources Department to work with the City Attorney to engage an outside (independent of the Mayor’s reach) investigator/firm to determine the answer to the questions above and report back to the City Council and City Attorney. This firm can recommend based on its findings what if any referrals should be made to other outside agencies such as the DOL, EEOC, Arkansas Ethics Commission, etc.
This outside firm can also help provide clear future guidance for similar situations so our nearly 600 city employees aren’t in fear of losing their jobs for speaking their minds if it displeases the Mayor’s office.
Jonesboro City Council
Ward 5 Position 1
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