'I did not see this coming'

·4 min read

Jul. 20—In municipal government, delicate personnel matters typically are handled behind the scenes, with employee complaints and department heads' concerns about job performance both addressed via a slow bureaucratic process bound by strict confidentiality.

But at Tuesday's regular meeting of the Cullman County Commission, the dissatisfaction shared among several former county employees found a very public forum. Eight people — all bus drivers or office staff who once worked for the Cullman Area Rural Transportation System (CARTS) — took turns during the meeting's public comments portion to air their frustrations with longtime CARTS director Joyce Echols.

Introduced by associate commissioner Garry Marchman, each of the former CARTS staffers shared personal accounts and anecdotes — most of them highly emotional — relating what they described as acrimonious encounters with Echols during their time at the publicly-funded bus service. One after another, they alleged she had demonstrated favoritism, created arbitrary expectations, made abrupt and unjust firing decisions, or fostered hostile working conditions that compelled them to quit their jobs.

Relating frustrations that appeared common to the group, former CARTS driver Wade Hancock — known locally as the winner of the 2018 National Community Transit Roadeo Roadeo's Otis Reed Driver of the Year award — said he quit in disgust late last year after allegedly being violently accosted by another driver while on the job, and unsuccessfully attempting to address the matter to Echols afterward.

After writing a workplace incident report and requesting that Echols speak to, and potentially reprimand, a driver who allegedly had thrown a metal object at him, Hancock said Echols informed him that she would not discipline the employee, and that, according to Hancock, "she would not have an employee telling her what to do.

"...I still find it hard to believe, in this day of workplace violence, that this incident was treated as if it were nothing," he said. "I ask the commission to take an in-depth look at the number of drivers and office employees who have left CARTS in the past five years, and find out why they left. I believe you'll discover the great majority of them will tell you: They would never work there again. Perhaps it is time for the commission to research the reason that CARTS has such a high turnover rate."

Like Hancock, all of the disgruntled speakers at Tuesday's meeting were former CARTS workers; no current employees at the service spoke. Visibly shaken afterward, a shellshocked Echols told The Times that present-day employee morale at the service has been sound, and that the sudden outpouring of dissatisfaction from former employees at Tuesday's meeting came as a surprise.

"I'm shocked and appalled. I did not see this coming," she said, describing current employee morale at the service as "great."

"It's great. Awesome. I don't know of anybody who works for me who feels like that — in any way, shape, or form," she said. "I noticed a lot of lies in much of what was said tonight. I'm getting used to the negativity that comes with some of the politics, [but] I would like to go over all of what was said tonight with the county attorney."

Commission chairman Jeff Clemons said after the meeting that the former employees' grievances, many of them dating to the years between 2017 and 2021, came as completely fresh news to him.

Noting that Echols has served as CARTS director for more than a decade (she accepted her current position in 2011), Clemons questioned the timing of what he characterized as an orchestrated and sudden attack on her leadership.

"I had no knowledge of it before tonight. Aside from one woman who had her own personnel issue, I have not been previously contacted by any of the folks who spoke," said Clemons.

"I don't think this was handled professionally tonight. If commissioner Marchman knew that this many people were coming to speak publicly about this, why did he not have the courtesy to tell us beforehand?"

The public complaint session from former CARTS employees dominated the commission meeting's first half hour, and commissioners offered no indication afterward of whether, or how, the allegations might be addressed. Clemons said afterward that many of the concerns aired Tuesday, if legitimate, should have been brought to county leaders' attention immediately — at the time they allegedly occurred.

"If these things have been going on since 2018 or earlier, why has he [Marchman] not done something about it before now? I was not on the commission at that time, but none of what I heard tonight has been brought to my attention since I have been here — not until tonight. If there's been an issue, then why hasn't it been already addressed? If he's been getting complaints on something as serious as this, the other commissioners ought to be notified of it when it happens — not four or five years down the road."

Benjamin Bullard can be reached by phone at 256-734-2131 ext. 234.