BY BRIAN JONES
Former West Point Interim Electric Department Superintendent Shasta Plunkett is finally getting his day in court. Plunkett, who was terminated on April 22, 2010, by a 4-1 vote, filed suit against the city on December 6 of that year. He alleged that the majority black board fired him due to his skin color.
Plunkett served with the West Point Electric Department for 11 years, beginning work as a meter reader and working his way up through the years. He served a lineman, and was put in charge of disconnections and collecting bad debt before being named interim superintendent. He served in that capacity for a little over 70 days before the board began to attempt to oust him.
In late 2009, Plunkett was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace after he publicly confronted a customer who was delinquent in his bills. In February 2010, Plunkett filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the city, alleging he was being racially discriminated against. Ward 2 Selectman Homer Cannon and Ward 3 Selectman Charles Collins called a March 10, 2010, special meeting – which was less than 24 hours after the board’s regular meeting – to fire Plunkett. They voted 3-1 to fire him, with Ward 1 Selectman Rod Bobo casting the no vote (Ward 4 Selectman Keith McBrayer chaired the meeting and so did not vote.) Mayor Scott Ross vetoed the firing, stating that the meeting was illegally called because he did not receive the three hours notice required by state statute. In early April 2010, Plunkett was removed from his post as interim superintendent but remained employed by the city. He was fired at an April 22, 2010, special meeting, this time by a 4-1 vote, with McBrayer voting no.
Plunkett was one of a host of former employees of both races who filed suit against the city for racial discrimination, including several police officers and former West Point Police Chief Steve Bingham.
Tuesday’s opening salvos
Plunkett’s trial opened Tuesday in Aberdeen under Federal Judge Sharion Aycock before a jury composed of six whites and two blacks.
Attorneys for both sides made their opening statements Tuesday afternoon.
Plunkett’s attorney, Jim Waide, told jurors that they would have to read between the lines when it came to his termination.
“This is ultimately a question of racial discrimination,” Waide said. “But no one is going to tell you that Shasta was fired because of his race. You are going to have to consider the circumstances and decide. You will find that some things are obvious. Shasta was an outstanding employee. It was not in the best interests of the taxpayers in the City of West Point to fire him. He was more knowledgeable and had more valuable skills than anyone else in the electric department. Shasta was not a perfect person, but he was superbly talented at electrical work.
“Shasta loved his job and he loved West Point,” Waide said. “He was dedicated to the city. He was not a racist person, color doesn’t enter his mind. He got along splendidly until the majority black board came into office in 2009. [Prior to 2009 there were two black members of the board of selectmen: Ward 1 Selectman Linda Hannah and Ward 5 Selectman Jasper Pittman. After the 2009 election cycle four of the five were black: Ward 1 Selectman Rod Bobo, Ward 2 Selectman Homer Cannon, Ward 3 Selectman Charles Collins and Mr. Pittman. – Brian Jones] In 2009 we had what I call the Pittman Board. Three of the four black selectmen tried to get rid of Shasta, but Mr. Bobo was different. He treated Shasta well. After Jasper Pittman was elected, he told Shasta, ‘I don’t like you. I’m going to get rid of you.’ Jasper Pittman didn’t pay his own water bill, and Shasta had to cut him off.
“In 2009 the city was behind in its electric bills because many people were allowed to continue to use power without paying,” Waide alleged. “Shasta was put in charge of cutoffs. He hated to do it, but he knew he had to, he couldn’t choose who got cut off and who didn’t. Many of those who didn’t pay were black, and were the constituents of the black selectmen. The city was in bad financial shape, they were writing off hundreds of thousands of dollars every year in bad debt. Shasta started enforcing the cutoff policy and they saved hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Waide claimed that when Plunkett began to push back against the board, he was fired.
“He filed an EEOC complaint against the board of selectmen in February 2010, and March 2010 was the first time the board tried to fire him,” Waide said. “All of them but Mr. Bobo voted to fire him. Mayor Scott Ross vetoed the firing. Immediately after that Teresa Moore was put in the electric department as office manager. She was there for two weeks, and then wrote a four-page report on how bad he was. Then in April the board voted to fire him again, and this time it was 4-1. Soon after that the board tried to fire Chief Administrative Officer Randy Jones and Interim Electric Superintendent Dwight Prisock, both of whom are white males. This was part of the board’s pattern of trying to get rid of white upper management.”
[In July 2010 the board voted 3-2 to fire both Mr. Jones and Mr. Prisock, who had only been serving as interim electric superintendent since Mr. Plunkett was fired on April 22. Mr. Ross again vetoed the firings. On August 10, 2010, the board again voted to fire Messrs. Jones and Prisock and the firings were again vetoed by Mr. Ross. – Brian Jones] “Teresa Moore and two other employees said Shasta was mean to them,” Waide said. “Since bookkeeper Jan Wray had retired, employees were coming in late to work and some money was not accounted for. Shasta was very concerned about that, but when he tried to discipline them they went to Jasper Pittman. Soon after Shasta was fired, Teresa Moore was moved into a position at city hall created by Charles Collins.”
Waide claimed that losing Plunkett’s skills had a “tremendous” effect on the city, and that his firing was a bad decision.
Attorney Lawson Hester gave the city’s opening remarks. He took issue with Waide’s version of the events, characterizing Plunkett as someone who let his authority go to his head.
“When I sat here and listened to Mr. Waide, I wondered if we were talking about the same city,” Hester said. “This is not 1964. Everything that happens in West Point is not about race. The decision that the majority black board made in 2010 was not racially motivated. The evidence will show that the selectmen are all good men. We are not here to talk about 1964, we’re here to talk about why Shasta Plunkett was put in as interim superintendent and removed 72 days later.
“Shasta Plunkett was taught his job by a black man,” Hester said. “Mr. Waide said he was a knowledgeable employee, and nobody disputes that. He was trained by the City of West Point.
“Mr. Waide said that Jasper Pittman is a bad man,” Hester said. “He said that the board became majority black in 2009. That doesn’t matter. They did not do racial things. Their first several votes were to get rid of employees who were black. Charles Collins is the one who made the motion to put Mr. Plunkett in the interim position when the old superintendent retired. Mr. Waide said Mr. Plunkett was a good employee who knew a lot about electricity. He did know a lot about electricity, but as soon as he was put in a position of power it all went south. You can do your job effectively, or you can let the power go to your head. You can do things the right way, or you can be judgmental and critical. The employees will tell you that they didn’t know what to expect from [Plunkett] from day to day. He was over the top. He was irate and belligerent with employees and with members of the public. You can’t talk to people the way he did and be effective at your job.
“The board had to do something,” Hester said. “He was removed from the position and put in an advisory position, but that didn’t work, either. Nine days later he was fired, and the man who was put in his place was a white man, Mr. Prisock, who is now the permanent superintendent.
“I want to finish where I began,” Hester said. “In West Point it’s not all about race. You have to judge people by how they do their jobs. Mr. Plunkett’s attitude never got better. This is about whether things were done the right way, not about race.”
The trial is expected to last all week.
[I will not be able to attend every day of the trial, but next week I will report back with at least the verdict. – Brian Jones] 0