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10/12/2019

Savage Suspended After Editing Video of County Meeting

 

Mississippi County Judge John Alan Nelson has suspended Public Affairs' employee Steven Savage a week without pay for editing Tuesday's personnel committee meeting video before he posted it on social media.

Savage apparently edited out about a three-minute exchange between Judge Nelson and Justice of the Peace Bill Nelson, who took issue with the county judge's hiring of Blytheville Mayor James Sanders' wife, Joyce, before getting approval from the Mississippi County Quorum Court's Personnel Committee.

Judge Nelson said he did not ask Savage to edit the video; Savage told the NEA Town Courier that he took out the portion of the video without consulting Judge Nelson.

"I didn't know anything about it," Judge Nelson said. "I'm shocked! Absolutely shocked!"

Judge Nelson added, "This is telling a lie. It's almost like you're stealing from the public. Because anytime you take a set of minutes, you can't change one word."

At the end of the Police, Fire and Safety meeting Thursday afternoon, Justice of the Peace Michael White asked Savage if he edits the videos he posts, and he responded "I'll talk to you after the meeting."

The video appeared to be edited around the 11:20 mark, though the minutes produced by the judge's assistant, Cindy George, reported on the content of the missing portion video.

"I felt like it would be better to take that part out," Savage said after the meeting, adding that is the only county meeting video he has ever edited before posting it to social media.

The NEA Town Courier obtained the original version, and the video in its entirety is now on the Mississippi County YouTube page, with the full version appearing to replace the edited version about an hour after the conclusion of the Police, Fire and Safety Committee meeting Thursday afternoon.

On Friday, neither version of the video appeared to be on the county's Facebook page.

In the edited out exchange between Justice Nelson and Judge Nelson, the judge's hiring practice was questioned.

"The only thing that bothers me about this is that you've hired someone without the personnel committee's approval," Justice Nelson said to Judge Nelson in the removed portion. "You've got them on the payroll and now we've got to clean up the mess. That concerns me. What I would like to ask of you if you're willing to do it - and Michael - is not to do this in the future unless we have met and approved it. I see no reason for you to hire someone and two weeks later come to us and ask for approval and salary for a person. This has happened more than once. I just feel like that is taking advantage of us, forcing your will upon us, and I would like to do things for you not because you've taken a whip and made us do things for you. Michael, that goes for you as well."

Nelson apologized to the committee.

"Even though it is not a good excuse but it is ignorance of my not being in office long enough," Judge Nelson said. "But I won't do it again. If y'all so desire not to fill this position, we are handling it right now without this person."

"It's like Justice White has said in the past, we want to give you what you need to run the office," Justice Nelson responded. "I just don't want you to take it. I want you to work with us, let us work with you and overcome any obstacle that you find."

Judge Nelson told the NEA Town Courier that the exchange "didn't bother me at all," and the evening after the meeting he planned to show the video to his wife, Angie, when discussing it with her, though the video did not appear on Facebook until later.

After Thursday's Police, Fire and Safety Committee meeting, Mississippi County Finance director Kelli Jones confronted Savage on the removal of a portion of the personnel meeting, saying county officials have been fielding questions about the move and need answers.

When she asked why he edited the video, Savage responded, "because I personally took it out."

George said she did not keep a recording of the meeting because it was videoed.

By law government entities are required to maintain meeting recordings.

George said she didn't know Savage was editing the video.

"I only edited out one part," Savage told George.

"I haven't deleted it, I still have it," he added. "It's just when I put it on social, I'm like...I don't think that should be posted for thousands of people to see."

Jones countered that the county is "supposed to be following transparency. That's the whole purpose of this. That's just part of it. You can't pick and choose what you put online if you're going to be transparent."

Mississippi County Justice of the Peace Molly Houseworth-Jackson added, "If nothing else, there should be a disclaimer that says that the videos on Facebook have the potential to be edited."

Savage said the entire version was on YouTube, though the YouTube version appeared to be the same one as the one posted to Facebook until it was replaced later in the afternoon.

Jones asked Savage how the YouTube version could be in its entirety when the one on Facebook was edited.

"Because not everyone watches the one that is on YouTube," Savage responded.

In the middle of his 10th month in office, Judge Nelson campaigned on transparency and his administration began the practice of videoing meetings and posting them to social media.

He emphatically denies having any knowledge that the video was being edited.

"There is no reason to take up for such a horrendous thing," Judge Nelson said. "I think he was thinking he was trying to protect me. Bill Nelson doesn't bother me. Bill Nelson sits six pews up to my right (in church). My mother worked for him 25 years ago. I have seen this from Bill Nelson a number of times; it doesn't bother me and it doesn't even surprise me. And on top of that, he is totally wrong."

The personnel committee ultimately hired Joyce Sanders, who Judge Nelson calls "overqualified," as landfill billing clerk at $15 per hour.

"I still stand behind it," Judge Nelson said. "I think it's a great fit and I have no problems with her being here."

Before hiring Joyce Sanders, Judge Nelson noted Mayor Sanders cautioned him about the move because of a political impact.

Judge Nelson said Joyce has an impressive resume, as she recently retired from Black Hills Energy.

He added the county had sought out candidates for the position from local temp agencies, though none panned out. According to Judge Nelson, he had asked Jones to lead the search because she needed an employee more than his office did.

Judge Nelson said he doesn't know how he could find a better fit for the position than Joyce Sanders.

She takes the place of Christina Thorp who was terminated in June after allegedly stealing money from the county.

Judge Nelson said Justice Nelson accused him of making the hire because he is "buddy-buddy" with Mayor Sanders.

"I think that the best thing for all of us would be if I drank coffee with him every single morning, maybe had lunch with him every day," Judge Nelson said. "I think that would be a really good thing. And the Osceola mayor, all the mayors here. The closer friendship we could build, then we could all go in one direction and we'd be more successful at it. But unfortunately, I have not had the time to be able to do that."

Also, Judge Nelson responded to questions regarding his son, John David Nelson, potentially being hired by the Mississippi County Sheriff's Office.

John David Nelson has been an officer with the Blytheville Police Department since 2009, and he told the NEA Town Courier that "it is possible" he will become an MCSD officer, though he has not been hired yet.

Judge Nelson called the criticism politics and "making it something that it is not."

Judge Nelson said he sees nothing wrong with John David Nelson potentially becoming a MCSD employee.

"He's got 10 years, he's certified," Judge Nelson said. "He's 31 years old. He was born here. He insists on being buried here."

Judge Nelson maintains his administration is transparent.

"We tell everything and we try to show everything," he said.

The county judge says editing meeting videos will not happen again.