Reality Check: What does Asheville's Civil Service Board do?

Alan Coxie is the current Chair of the city's Civil Service Board. (Courtesy: WLOS)

Asheville's City Council recently discussed making changes to the appeal process for fired and disciplined city employees, including police officers, which involves the Civil Service Board.

The state legislature created Asheville's Civil Service Board with a law passed in 1953. The board possesses the power to overturn firings, which it has sometimes done. At a recent work sessions council members indicated an intention to make changes to the board's authority, though specifics were not mentioned.

Attorney Alan Coxie has served on the board for eight years. He's currently the chair.

"We decided to do this interview to explain a little bit about what we do," Coxie said.

He estimates the board hears 2-3 cases a year. The board ensures employees receive due process. It has overturned and upheld city personnel decisions.

"Looking at the decisions that I've participated in, it's been about 50-50," Coxie said.

City leaders mentioned the board after police body camera video, first obtained by the Citizen Times, became public. The video shows then Asheville police officer Chris Hickman using force against Johnnie Rush during an August 2017 incident. Police say a use of force complaint came the next day and initiated an internal investigation.

Hickman resigned in January 2018, before getting fired.

Former City Manager Gary Jackson said a reason the investigation took so long had to do with the Civil Service Board's Authority.

"Failure to follow the city's internal policies could result in substantial risk, including reinstatement by the Civil Service Board, if the officer is terminated," Jackson said at a special City Council meeting on March 5, 2018.

The investigation into Hickman's use of force took about 3.5 months. Police Chief Tammy Hooper said it took so long, in part, because the department reviewed 2-months worth of Hickman's body camera footage. Hooper also brought up the board's ability to overturn terminations.

"I'm not trying to tell you that would happen, but I can tell you that has happened in the past. So, it's very important for us to do everything by the book in terms of how we conduct our administrative case," Hooper said in a March 5 interview.

The public mentions made Coxie want to explain what the board does.

"Ordinarily, a member of the Civil Service Board wouldn't do a media interview like this, but this is kind of a really unique incident. Upon reflection, I think it's important that the public understand a little bit about what we do," Coxie said.

When an employee comes the board, it holds what's called a quasi-judicial hearing. As chair, Coxie serves as a de-facto judge during the hearing. Afterwards, the board privately deliberates.

"It doesn't help a community when a critical incident occurs and passions run high, if additional mistakes are made on the disciplining of a municipal employee. So, civil service boards are kind of there to ensure that function," Coxie said.

The board isn't unique to Asheville. Other municipalities in the state have them. Coxie said the board is a last step within the city's appeal process.

"We have really good institutions in this country that ensure democracy and due process, and so I think you have to kind of trust the process sometimes. That's why were there to make sure that part of the process works," Coxie said.

The board doesn't have final authority. Its decisions can and have been appealed in court. There is a current case still pending appeal.

In 2014, APD Chief William Anderson fired Officer Robert Frost for using excessive force. The Civil Service Board overturned his firing because of a lack of due process. The state's Supreme Court could soon rule whether the case will be decided by a judge or jury.

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