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Summer Youth Employment program causes heated debate at county commission

A heated debate broke out at the July 3 Gadsden County Commission meeting regarding the county’s Summer Youth Employment Program. 

The Summer Youth Employment Program provides paid jobs for local youth during the summer and is funded by the county commission. Commissioner Sherrie Taylor said she was unhappy that a few students originally selected for the program were later scratched because they were unable to attend the program’s orientation. 

Taylor said she felt this was “very unfair” to these students, as they have no control over the summer schedules set for them by their parents or guardians.

 Interim County Administrator Dee Jackson agreed she felt badly the students were penalized but said she believed the orientation session was mandatory by the county’s Human Resources Department and the Clerk of Courts. 

Jackson said she instructed her staff to include the orientation date and to “state clearly” the orientation attendance requirement in future student applications. 

 Taylor said the county commission had never indicated orientation was mandatory, arguing any students who missed the orientation should have been allowed to make it up.

Taylor asked Jackson what became of these students’ slots in the program, to which Jackson responded the original students were replaced with other students who were able to attend orientation.

Both Taylor and Commissioner Eric Hinson said they felt this shouldn’t have been handled this way, and Hinson made a motion that the five students who originally qualified for the program but were kicked out for not being able to make the orientation be allowed to join for the duration of the program.

“I had one girl who was crying her eyes out to me, having been cut out of this program,” Hinson said. “The adults in charge should not do this to our children.”

Taylor added, “Our children need to be given opportunities to work and gain valuable skills and experience, while keeping themselves out of the trouble they can get into in the streets.” 

Commission Chair Brenda Holt said in order to move money to support such a motion, the request had to be already on the meeting’s agenda. Holt added she felt Hinson’s motion to reinstate the students axed from the program due to failure to attend orientation was unfair to any other students who were qualified but not originally selected, as they wouldn’t be afforded the same second chance to join the program.  

When Jackson said she was unsure if funds originally allotted for the program were still available, Hinson reminded her the interim county administrator has $25,000 in discretionary funds she could use without prior approval by the county commission.

Holt asked Deborah Mennis, acting county attorney for the meeting, to share her opinion about the legality of the situation.

Mennis said even if the interim county administrator had up to $25,000 to spend, there was a certain amount of funding set aside for this program and to now change that amount without commission approval may be improper.

Holt them called for a vote, with Hinson and Taylor voting to reinstate the program selectees kicked out for not attending orientation, and Holt voting against it. 

Commissioners Gene Morgan and Anthony Viegbesie left earlier in the meeting, and with only three commissioners left, the motion failed for not receiving the necessary three votes. 

Taylor said she was “very disappointed” with Holt’s “nay” vote on the motion.  

“As I see it, she [Holt] voted against helping kids in our county,” Taylor said after the meeting. “I want the people of the county to know exactly what happened here tonight.”

By Randall Lieberman