Commission abolishes directors' contracts

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A request from the new county manager to abolish all employment contracts for county directors was approved by county commissioners by a unanimous vote Wednesday morning.

County Manager Bruce Swingle said of the nine county director positions, there are five with contracts — community services, detention center, human resources, finance and public works. Currently, the finance and community services positions are vacant.

The remaining four positions — emergency services, fire services, Internet technology and purchasing — are filled by non-contract, exempt employees.

County employees under contract are hired directly by the commissioners, while exempt employees are hired by the county manager.

"Staff is requesting that you abolish the contracts and stream line the process," Swingle said. "Right now, if I have to take any corrective action with a director on contract, I have to take the matter to the commission and usually into executive (session) to address the issue. I would like to abolish those."

After executive session, the commissioners directed Swingle to negotiate the termination of the contracts for the three employees effected by their decision.

Those employees will now transition to exempt county employees.

While there wasn't any discussion amongst the commissioners at Wednesday's meeting, they gave the idea a thorough going-over at the June 27 meeting, when Swingle presented the idea as a discussion item.

The county manager said the "hodgepodge" of contract and non-contract directors made it difficult to address personnel issues.

"We are looking at a reorganization that can't be done due to contracts. It would require us to terminate contracts but would not get rid of the employees," he said.

During the discussion, Commissioner Georgia Otero-Kirkham asked Swingle to name a pro and con to abolishing the contracts.

"A pro is the county manager can manage staff. Right now, I can't manage the entire staff," he said."I have to go through the commission because the contract employees are not under my purview; they are under the commissioners.

"I'm not aware of any county out there who uses contracts for any employees except the manager."

Commissioner Ron Gentry asked if the commission would have any say in the hiring of directors or if it would be "just the manager."

Swingle said they would be like any other employee.

"The commission would have involvement and input," he said. "It's difficult having half the directors I can't manage, but I can manage their staff."

"What do we do?" Gentry asked.

"We set policy and not micromanage," answered Commissioner Mary Andersen.

Gentry said under the county's personnel policy, employees are entitled to a grievance procedure, and asked if contract employees were entitled to that procedure. Swingle said they were not.

Gentry also asked if the contract employees were transitioned to county employees would they be able to earn overtime.

County Attorney Adren Nance said under the Fair Labor Standards Act, if an employee directs work and has a certain level of education, they do not get over time.

""What is proposed to change is that currently, the commission can dismiss a contract employee without a grievance procedure," Nance said. "If it were changed to them working without the contract, then the progressive discipline process would apply."

Calling the directors the county's "first line administrators," Gentry said as classified employees, so long as the county manager and commission couldn't show due cause, that employee couldn't be terminated or replaced.

Nance said the administration would have to show just cause for any change.

"So they would be like the rest of the supervised labor force?" Gentry asked.

Nance said that was correct.

"If we do this, there is only one person they are directly accountable to and that's the county manager?"

Nance said that was accurate.

"So all employment falls under the county manager's direction, wisdom and policy," Gentry said. "If this is given up, we can't move anyone if they are just meeting basic employment standards; can't shift them or move them around unless we have cause."

County Attorney Dave Pato said classified employees are entitled to certain protections and hearings, "so you can't just willy-nilly fire someone. With a contract, there's 30 days notice and they're gone."

Gentry said the change would give the directors the same level of protections and benefits as someone on the road crew.

"That's the best possible protection they could have," he said.

Gentry asked if it was possible to change someone's job description once they are employed by the county.

Nance said duties could be added and subtracted, but drastic changes were prohibited.

"You can't say, 'Today you are working in animal control, tomorrow you're in finance.' There are pros and cons to both sides," he said. "With a contract, if someone is not accomplishing the goals you asked them to, you can get somebody who can.

"There is also something very positive about handling the directors like other employees and giving them that sense of security. The county manager is asking what you ultimately want."

Gentry said there were positives and negatives to Swingle's request.

"You have the longevity factor in any government job. If you get a federal job, you're there forever," Gentry said. "To me, it's one way to have better management but you lose the ability to have policy setting and direction changes as the commission changes. Those people are going to be there forever.

"The people (commissioners) coming in have no say about the administrative direction. Public bodies change, policy changes, direction changes. I think we've had a good direction change these last few years and we can galvanize it or wait for the new folks come in who might want to change it. It's not simple change."

Commissioner Mary Andersen said the people now under contract would be exempt employees, if not for the contracts.

"In a sense, moving them to exempt status gives the county manager some flexibility if a job is not quite right for an individual and the person can be moved," Andersen said. "Right now, if they don't perform under the contract we have no recourse but to let them go.

"I think any commission sets its goals and tells the county manager what it wants. And if the county manager can't perform or doesn't want to perform, you get rid of the county manager. You hold him responsible for the employees."

Otero-Kirkham said the county has invested a great deal of time and energy in the administration.

"Three votes and they're out with new commissioners," Otero-Kirkham said. "These are long-term, loyal employees. On contract, they really do work at the whim of the commission. If someone wants a position for family or a friend, all they need is three votes. That's something to think about."

Saying that each commissioner was elected and held responsible for what happened in their district, Commissioner Lawrence Romero said giving authority to one person, commissioners might be talking themselves into not being elected.

"I don't think the commissioners here don't think our employees are good, but the top is the motor that runs the county," Romero said. "We should have control of that. Bruce says he has no control. If he says something needs be changed, we take vote and change it. I think that's the way it should be."

Gentry made the point that all the current directors, who the commissioners praised, would not be in their positions if the commissioners eight years ago had not been able to make changes.

"When we got elected, we were still living with all those folks we thought should have been replaced," he said. "I think we have great people, but we wouldn't have been able to put them in place if this policy was in effect seven years ago."

Andersen said she believed directors would have more protection if they were "not under contract from the whims of a commissioner."

Commission Chairman Donald Holliday said he hasn't seen anyone get fired.

Swingle said they have reprimanded, disciplined and terminated a number of employees since he started earlier this year due to basic performance issues.

"And it's all been done according to Hoyle with all considerations given," Andersen said.

Holliday replied that he hadn't seen any contract employees fired.

Ironically, at that same meeting, during executive session commissioners discussed at length the termination of the contract for then Finance Director Larry Augsbury. At a special meeting on July 2, the commissioners voted 5-0 to terminate Augsbury's contract.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.