Jefferson County Commission Restricts Use of Mass Messaging System, at Least for Now

Jefferson County Commissioner Lashunda Scales took exception to the word “control” in the explanation given today for a resolution to set guidelines for commissioners’ non-emergency use of the Everbridge mass communication system.

“That’s what I don’t agree with,” she said, “to control another commissioner’s district or ability to utilize this system for what they believe (needs to be circulated). Why would we have to bring it to the commission, who may not value what your district values?”

The commission ultimately approved on a 3-1 vote that commissioners will not use the system for non-emergency messages, at least until it has had a chance to meet with the board of the Emergency Management Agency, which administers the system.

Scales offered the no vote and Commissioner Sheila Tyson was absent. The vote left in place the resolution requested by Tyson to use the system to disseminate information about the upcoming census.

Scales asked her fellow commissioners to pull the presented resolution from consideration today to allow for further discussion. She argued that, since the system is paid for with taxpayer dollars, individual commissioners should be able to disseminate non-emergency information without getting permission from a majority of commissioners.

“I’d like there to be more discussion between EMA officials and the commission before we pass a policy,” she said.

Commissioner Steve Ammons, who was absent from a Tuesday committee meeting in which the matter was discussed, noted that the discussed policy related only to the Jefferson County Commission’s use of the system. It was not meant to place rules on EMA.

“I think that everything we do, the public should know,” Scales said. “That’s what I consider to be transparent. I know what the system can be used for because (EMA Director) Jim Coker asked me about utilizing this system.”

Commission President Jimmie Stephens, who presented the resolution, said it was designed to control how the commission can use Everbridge. It says that outside of any emergency situation, such as a road closure or a thunderstorm warning or an outbreak of the coronavirus, that any public service announcement would require approval by a majority of the commission.

“That,” Stephens said, “keeps Everbridge from being over-utilized and people actually pay attention.” He has voiced worries that if people get too many messages from the system, they might start ignoring it.

Scales said the commission should not put policies in place “just because there was one human error.” She referenced her use of the Everbridge system when the message went well beyond the targeted area.

“If it is of benefit to the general public, the general public should have access to the information,” she said. “We as commissioners work at the pleasure of the public. If we’re going to work for the public, public information cannot be something we sit here and decide if you think it’s OK.”

“Why,” she asked, “would you want to control the messaging that goes to another commissioner’s district?” She also said she had no problem with messages that would go throughout the county.

Stephens anticipated a possible expanded use of the system by cities and towns in Jefferson County. “You’re going to have 34 municipalities with all these councilors saying, ‘I’ve got the same right as Commissioner Scales has and I want to use this system.’”

Today’s meeting began with resolutions being presented to the boys basketball teams from Fairfield and Huffman high schools for winning the Alabama High School Athletic Association Class 5A and Class 6A championships, respectively.