The Payson Town Council on a split vote last week overruled the recommendation of an independent hearing officer and upheld the firing of a longtime town employee over concerns with e-mail security.
Tonia Erin had appealed her firing based on concerns about possible unauthorized access to Town Manager Debra Galbraith’s Outlook and e-mail account.
A hearing officer heard testimony in the case and recommended the council overturn the firing, saying town officials had not proven Erin had ever accessed Galbraith’s e-mail.
However, the town council upheld the termination on a 5-2 vote.
Erin argued she had probably on several occasions checked the town manager’s calendar in her Outlook account, but had never accessed her e-mail. However, Galbraith insisted that information included in her e-mails had leaked out and the town’s IT manager said only he and Erin had potential access to Galbraith’s e-mail. He maintained that when Galbraith raised concerns about her e-mail security, he had revoked Erin’s authority to enter Galbraith’s Outlook account. He then documented four subsequent occasions when someone using Erin’s account tried unsuccessfully to access Galbraith’s e-mail account when the town manager was out of the office.
Erin, who has worked for the town for eight years, insisted she had never made any attempt to read Galbraith’s e-mail.
“I have never looked at Ms. Galbraith’s e-mail for any reason,” said Erin.
She maintained that during the period she apparently had the authority to log into Galbraith’s e-mail, she didn’t even know she had that authorization. “As far as I ever knew, I never had access and nobody ever told me I had access and had it removed. My understanding was that all I had was access to her calendar and that was normal. No one ever told me any of this until I was being terminated.”
A supportive crowd of about 40 town workers plus friends and family members showed up to offer Erin support during the hearing before the council.
“I was really surprised they’d go against (hearing officer) Ronnie McDaniel,” said Erin. “But they’d already made up their minds. I just fell on the wrong side of the IT manager and the town manager. People know I would not do anything like this.”
Councilors Ed Blair and Fred Carpenter both voted to uphold the findings of the hearing office and reinstate Erin. However, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans plus councilors John Wilson, Su Connell, Richard Croy and Michael Hughes all voted to uphold the firing.
The hearing and some of the comments made by the participants revealed fractures in the ranks of the town staff that go back two years ago to Galbraith’s promotion from finance officer to town manager in the midst of financial problems that led to the layoff of half a dozen town employees. Reportedly, concerns about e-mail security related directly or indirectly to some of those laid-off town workers, including concerns about whether the town might end up facing a lawsuit in regards to the layoffs.
Councilor Blair argued that the town should uphold the hearing officer’s findings, given the lack of firm evidence Erin had actually read or printed any of Galbraith’s e-mails. “I find Ms. Erin to be a very credible witness and therefore I move to reinstate her,” said Blair.
Councilor Wilson actually voted with Blair and Carpenter on the initial reinstatement motion, which died on a 4-3 vote.
Councilor Connell then moved to uphold the original termination. That motion passed on a 5-2 vote, with only Carpenter and Blair in opposition.
At the end of the contentious and sometimes confusing process, Mayor Evans said the town needed to find some new method of reviewing terminations and disciplinary action.
The town went through an even more wrenching process last year when Police Lt. Donny Garvin appealed his demotion on a variety of charges, including misleading the police chief, having an affair with the wife of another officer and exchanging inappropriate text messages. In that case, the hearing officer ruled against Garvin and the town rejected his appeal.
“We need to do as Ms. Erin suggests and find a more civil way to proceed,” said Evans. “There has got to be a better way. This process is arcane and is not as civil as it ought to be.”
After the meeting, Erin said she believed that the town manager dismissed her in the mistaken belief that she was trying to get information for friends of hers who had been laid off two years previously.
Afterward, several council members said they had voted to uphold the termination mostly because they believed that Galbraith needed to have the freedom to run the town staff and that they couldn’t expect her to continue working with an employee in a key position that she didn’t trust, even if she could provide no absolute, documentary evidence that Erin had been in her e-mail account beyond the four times the system recorded a failed attempt to access the account that involved Erin’s account.