A firestorm of emotion has resulted from the termination of Covington Personnel/Purchasing Director Eboni Eaton during a special called meeting Friday afternoon.
The meeting, which was announced on the city’s Facebook page last Wednesday, served as a discussion surrounding the proposed termination for insubordination. Mayor Jan Hensley alleged Eaton walked out of a meeting in which he planned to counsel her and disregarded his request for a subsequent meeting.
Friday’s public meeting was not broadcast for citizens, a departure from the city’s decades-long practice. The Leader is providing audio from the 31-minute meeting for those interested in listening. (Please note: There are expletives in the recording.)
Eaton was hired in August 2021
In Covington, the consent of the majority of the board of mayor and aldermen is required to hire or fire a department head.
Eaton was hired by the city on Aug. 10, 2021 after the board approved then-mayor Justin Hanson’s recommendation. For the sake of transparency, The Leader would like to note Eaton’s mother, Johnetta Yarbrough, was serving the city as its vice mayor and represented District 1 at the time of Eaton’s appointment.
Yarbrough is no longer on the board, but the two representatives from District 1, John Edwards and Jean Johnson, have joined her in vehemently opposing Eaton’s termination since the meeting was announced. Edwards has taken to Facebook to openly discuss the optics of the city holding a special meeting with only two days’ notice to terminate its only Black department head.
The meeting, which took place in the middle of the afternoon, brought dozens of residents to city hall and its audience was one of the most outspoken in many years.
When Eaton refused to meet with him, the mayor asked her to resign
Hensley spared no time getting to the details.
He explained that on May 17 he and Eaton had a meeting in his office at Covington City Hall regarding an incident that took place in April. Hensley did not explain the incident – and the city attorney would not allow it to be discussed when board members asked – but he said counseling, not discipline, was the intent.
“During that meeting, before I issued any formal counseling, when I began discussing the incident in April, Director Eaton became angry and told me that I was only considering one side of the story so I said we should have a meeting with all parties to get to the bottom of the situation. Director Eaton said she did not want to have such a meeting and abruptly left my office.”
Hensley said he sought legal counsel to determine the best practice for handling the situation.
“I felt that it was important to have a meeting with all the parties for the stated purpose of understanding what facts were agreed upon and what facts were in dispute.”
Hensley set up a meeting for May 24 with Eaton, Covington Police Chief Donna Turner, and city attorney Rachel Gangaware, however Hensley said Eaton did not want to meet without having a lawyer there to represent her and she was in the process of hiring someone.
Hensley said he asked her several times to reconsider attending the meeting, including up to an hour prior to the meeting’s start time.
“I also informed Director Eaton if she refused to attend the meeting that I would consider that a serious act of insubordination and refusal to perform the duties of her job, I will be left with no other choice than to ask for a resignation if she refused and to recommend that this board that she be terminated. I asked her to respond by 5 p.m. that day whether or not she would attend the meeting.”
Eaton reportedly responded at 5:35 p.m., telling him she was not being insubordinate and notified him she planned to submit an official grievance to the board.
“She believed the meeting was canceled, and therefore adjusted her schedule so she wasn’t available at 1 p.m. that day. According to her Outlook calendar, the meeting at 1 p.m. was still on her calendar, but she did not attend the meeting. On Friday, May 26, my assistant hand delivered a letter to Director Eaton detailing the events as I’ve just recounted them, all of which are documented in emails, and asked Director Eaton for a resignation by the close of business day on Tuesday, May 30.”
Hensley placed Eaton on administrative leave with pay pending her resignation or board action. She told him that day that she would not be resigning.
“As I stated to Director Eaton in my emails, I consider her action refusing to attend a meeting I directed her to attend to be a serious act of insubordination and refusal to perform the dues of her job. Due to your actions, I make a recommendation to this board that she be terminated as HR director.”
Edwards asked to postpone the meeting until Eaton’s lawyer could attend
Edwards said Eaton’s attorney was not available to appear at the meeting on short notice and asked the meeting to be tabled until her attorney could be present.
“I’ve heard one side of the story for the last two weeks, but I hadn’t heard her side. I hadn’t heard her attorney argue her side. I’ve heard two attorneys argue your side, but I hadn’t heard anybody argue her side yet. I would like for us to postpone this meeting until her attorney can give representation.”
There were not enough votes to table the discussion. Eaton said she was advised by her attorney not to speak.
“Now you all can go ahead and then do this, I don’t know what you call it when you only let one side be heard,” Edwards later said. “You all have been giving me notes for the last two weeks and then you give her two days to get her attorney up here. It’s not fair. And that’s all I’m asking for. Give her a chance for her attorney to come up here. ”
The incident seemed to stem from issues with the police department
“The only thing I’ve seen Director Eaton do is her job,” Edwards said. “This all started with complaints from some of our city employees from the police department because of the way that there’s a misunderstanding about if Director Eaton even has power over the police department, even though the municipal code states the Director Eaton has supervision over every city employee. I saw and I’ve been hearing that she is not been communicating. I saw where she sent out email, I believe was January the 13th, discussing the issues that she saw with the treatment of Covington police officers and I didn’t see an answer for two months. So there may be another answer in that email thread that I didn’t see, but it seems like she was trying to do her job, and she’s been able to maintain all of her staff. And since she sent out that email, we’ve lost probably about at least 10 police officers. We lost two lieutenants …”
Hensley hit the gavel and reminded Edwards the discussion needed to center around the insubordination that took place from May 17-26.
“This the topic, this is where it came from,” Edwards said. “We’re talking about her job.”
“We can talk about her duties, but we’re not going to go into the City of Covington Police Department and put their employees on trial,” the mayor said.
“No, we’re not putting them on trial,” Edwards responded. “I’m saying that we lost two lieutenants this week. Yes, we lost almost 30 years of experience this week, and she’s been trying to speak up for those police officers. And the complaint that made you write that letter, it came from where?”
Witherington told Edwards the May 17 meeting involved confidential employee information she would not allow the board to discuss. Edwards continued to defend Eaton, suggesting the claims that Eaton “became belligerent” in the May 17 meeting was a misrepresentation.
“I don’t think you could pay Director Eaton to be belligerent.”
Alderman Chris Richardson argued Director Eaton knew she was violating the rules because she and those in the Codes Department wrote the employee handbook last year.
“In this book, what we have a question on is who has a right to whatever. You have Director Eaton who’s saying ‘I’ve got the right’ and you had Chief Turner who said she had the right. Who’s right, though?”
Things got heated when Richardson read the second page of the handbook aloud, then explained Chief Turner had precedence. Members of the audience were speaking loudly, telling Richardson he was off topic.
Yarbrough defended her daughter, then left the board room
As Hensley banged the gavel and told her she was out of order, Yarbrough stood up and defended her daughter. There were many people talking at the same time and it was difficult to hear what she was saying, but she questioned the way Director Eaton was being treated.
“I’m gonna leave after this,” she said, “I’m out of order, but … who said the meeting was cancelled and was reading it out loud?”
The former vice mayor, who knew she would be asked to leave due to her conduct, voluntarily left the board room following her unanswered questions.
Richardson continued his discussion about the May 17 meeting and why it was called.
“That was the main question, that’s why the meeting was called, to discuss …”
The major interjected and said the meeting was not about insubordination, but insubordination was a result of the meeting.
“The insubordination didn’t have anything to do with that meeting until Director Eaton got up and left,” Hensley said. “Yes, the insubordination was called when she wouldn’t come back to a meeting to discuss that, when she failed to come back to do that. It has nothing to do prior to that. There was no discipline going to be written up prior to that.”
The board set a precedent by terminating Eaton
The mayor and aldermen also considered the precedent it’d set if they allowed Eaton to remain employed after refusing to participate in meetings with the mayor.
“No matter what happened leading up to these emails we received – and I understand communication was bad on both sides, I understand there’s some things that definitely should have been done differently – but the insubordination in the emails, the right out refusal, we set a precedent that we can’t have,” alderman C.H. Sullivan said.
The vote was 4-2, with only Johnson and Edwards voting to retain Director Eaton.
Occupancy reminder ahead of Tuesday’s board meeting
Many residents upset with the decision have said they plan to attend Tuesday’s meeting of the board of mayor and aldermen. Edwards and Johnson are reminding residents they have the right to attend the meeting and speak if they chose to do so.
On Monday afternoon, a notice was posted to the city’s Facebook page stating the board room’s occupancy limit is 66 people, which includes the 7 members of the board, the town recorder, the city attorney, and other city employees who are required to attend.
This was the first time in recent memory that an occupancy limit has been shared before a meeting. In years past, when there were not enough seats spectators stood around the outer areas and in the hallways to watch as elected officials and employees were sworn in or retired or local groups were performing for the board.
Tuesday’s meeting will be streamed live on the city’s Facebook page.
Tension seemed evident before the special called meeting
During a meeting last month it seemed there was tension surrounding Eaton as she’d seemingly been left out of, or neglected to perform, an essential function of her position.
During a Finance & Administration Committee meeting on May 16, when the board members were discussing requests for proposals from local realtors, Edwards made it a point to ask Eaton’s opinion about which firm to hire. It was a move that was out of the ordinary and an indicator that Edwards was aware there were issues between Eaton and other decision makers.
Eaton’s response was barely audible, but it was made clear that she did not process the RFPs though she is over purchasing. Alderwoman Jean Johnson made a motion to table the discussion until Eaton could review it.
Alderman Danny Wallace asked what the city would gain by waiting and Edwards slid several sheets of paper across the table.
“According to the city’s charter, purchasing should go through purchasing,” Edwards said. “Normally, these would go into her.”
Edwards said he’d looked through the RFPs and noticed they were not addressed to Eaton. There was discussion about what has traditionally gone through purchasing and what has gone to the department heads, however the charter is clear that surplus property should be handled by the purchasing department.
“What are we going to lose by waiting?” Johnson asked.
With alderman Jeff Morris recusing himself from the RFP discussion due a conflict of interest, there was a tie when it came time to vote for tabling it. Johnson and Edwards voted in favor of moving the discussion to the June 20 meeting while Wallace and alderman Richardson did not.
Wallace asked Eaton whether or not she was at the board meeting in which the matter was first raised and given a copy of the documents.
“None of the documents were given to me, I have not seen them, I did not do the RFP,” Eaton told Wallace. “I did not put it in the paper for today–”
“And you did not ask about?” Wallace, who was sitting next to Eaton at the table, interrupted. “Even though you did have knowledge of it going on, is that correct?”
Alderman Sullivan, the chairman of the Finance & Administration Committee, later made a motion to table the decision until the next meeting and it passed.
Jodi Turner contributed to this story.