Council Opts Out Of Employee Discipline

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No more politically charged, excruciatingly public firings and demotions.

The Payson Town Council just took itself out of the loop.

Still smarting from two painfully public employee appeals, the Payson Town Council last week decided to let fired and demoted employees appeal to professional personnel hearing officers in the future — instead of the town council.

“This takes the council out of the disciplinary appeals process,” said Town Attorney Tim Wright. “It removes the potential for politics, which could create some real problems. Employees could be treated differently from someone who isn’t so popular” in the community.

Under the current system, employees facing termination or demotion have the right to a hearing before an administrative law judge, who can support or dispute the decision of the supervisor. The council must then vote to uphold or overturn that recommendation. The reasons for the disciplinary action remain confidential until the hearing officer has made a decision, which then goes to the council for review.

Under the new system, appeals will go to an outside hearing officer who specializes in public employee disciplinary issues. That hearing officer’s out any review by the council — and therefore without any public revelations.

Under the town’s system, the council hires the town manager and the town attorney, but everyone else on the staff works for the manager or the attorney. This strong manager system in theory insulates the town staff from council politics.

The council’s decision to take itself out of the employee discipline process came amidst an overhaul of the town’s personnel manual.

That overhaul also changed the now-generous system for paying town employees for unused sick leave and time off.

The current rules pay town workers for unused vacation and sick time, which they can carry forward from year to year until they retire. The new rules will sharply limit the accumulation of paid time off — but only for new employees.

Attorney Wright advised the council that state law currently treats the personnel manual in effect at the time an employee is hired as a binding contract. That means the town council can’t change any of the rules concerning vacation, sick time, pensions, overtime and other benefits unless it faces a financial emergency.

“The state has ruled when you hire someone that’s a contract,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans. “Only when you have a catastrophic situation can you change it.”

That situation contrasts with private employers, who can generally change working conditions at will unless the employee has negotiated an employment contract, unusual for anyone who’s not a CEO, professional athlete or union member.

As a result of the shift approved last week by the council, future town employees may find they have sharply different benefits than a coworker doing the same job, depending on their respective hiring dates.

The shift in the council’s role in hearing disciplinary appeals comes in the wake of two controversial cases. In one case, the council upheld the decision of an outside hearing officer, but in the second case, the council overruled the hearing officer.

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