Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Lake City News

Lake City's City Workers
One vote short of a fair shake

Mayor Steve Witt (2nd from left), listens intently to Columbia County icon, Glynnell "Coach" Presley, along with City Clerk Audrey Sikes, Councilmen Jake Hill and George Ward, and long time City Attorney Herbert Darby.

On Monday night, November 15, 2010, Lake City Florida's city workers came up one Council vote short on a vote that could have entitled them to an even playing field and a fair hearing, before coming to work one day and hearing the words "You're outta here. Resign and you'll get a couple of months severance and unemployment – balk and you get fired. We don't owe you any explanation."

On the city docket Monday evening was the approval of the newly revised City Personnel Policy Manual.

The dividing line in the discussion Monday evening was the phrase "at will", which enables the city to fire a worker without cause, warning or explanation.

The Personnel Policy Manual states in its introduction that it is a guideline. City employees are bound by this policy, the city is not. An employee as a condition of employment has to accept the policy.

Buried in the language of the policy is this: "Violation of this policy will subject an employee to disciplinary action, up to and including immediate termination."

Because the employee is "at will" and because the employee is not guaranteed any of the protections of the policy, including a fair hearing, two city councilman voted against the policy.

The "Coach" asks the City to take a look.

Lifelong Columbia County resident and retired Columbia County educator Glynnell Presley, known by generations as the "Coach" told the City Council, "The manual treads on the 14th Amendment."

Mr. Presley continued: "I believe the manual is ambiguous, hypocritical and a violation of the 14th Amendment... it requires due process and also equal protection.  Even "at will" employees cannot be fired for reasons that are illegal under federal law... I'm here to ask you to take a look at what you're attempting to do here. When you put this policy out there... it means they [an employee] could be terminated because you don't like the way their hair is parted or the way they look -- I think you need to look into that. Something is just not right in my mind."

Councilman Jefferson - concerned

Newly returned City Councilman Eugene Jefferson weighed in: "Mr. Mayor, I'm concerned about the "at will" language... In my current job with the state I'm an "at will" employee, but that class does not embody all state employees and I just happen to be in that class. I would not think that all city employees would be in a class of at will, that could be terminated "at will" - just because I have the authority to terminate you. That may not be the intent of this language, but I have a problem with the way that's stated, as it embodies all the city employees."

Mr. Jefferson concluded: "For all city employees to fit in that "at will" class, that could be terminated without cause, it is a cause of concern for me. I think we need to look at that."

Councilman Ward - relies on state law

Council Ward: "We can fire anybody "at will" because you have that right under state law."

Mr. Ward, a respected local businessman related the issue to his business telling the council that he is providing money and his employee is providing labor. "That's a two sided contract to me," he said.

Mr. Ward: "I don't think we've ever not documented the problems with an employee... and I don't think this is trying to sidestep that now."

Mayor Witt cites federal law

Lake City's popular Mayor, Steve Witt weighed in: "It doesn't change anything as far as the federal laws; we have to abide by those."

Councilman Hill not convinced

Councilman Hill was not convinced. He told the Council: "Your supervisor can walk in after having a bad day, a bad morning, or whatever, just say you're fired. That's not right."

City Manager Johnson wrote the policy

City Manager Wendell Johnson explained that the present personnel policy, dated 1995 is defined as an "at will" personnel policy, so we have that in effect already: "This policy was prepared through my effort and the effort of the city staff.  I put the content of the provisions into words in this document. Legal sufficiency for this document was given by a Florida labor attorney who's been representing this city for a number of years. If you look at the provisions in this policy, you see policies against harassment of any kind. You see policies that guarantee equal opportunity and treatment, so I can sympathize with at will.  I'm at will.  I've got an employment contract because I make a great investment when I leave another town and come to a job like this.  I make a big monetary sacrifice for that..."

City Manager Johnson's "at will" status is not like other employees. Without cause termination by the City or Mr. Johnson requires 90 days written notice. Mr. Johnson's "with cause" termination is controlled by the City Charter. The City Manager is entitled to a public vote of the Council, a copy of the charges and a chance to rebut the charges at a public hearing and in writing. The City Manager cannot be suspended without pay.

CM Johnson: "I can tell you the way this policy is written and the fact that it has built-in provisions to protect against arbitrary and blatant -- if I come in and I don't like you today I'm gonna fire you.  That's not gonna to happen.  It's not happening -- not in my time here, it's not happened.  And it's not gonna happen in my time. And I have no record of it ever happening here."

Everyone does not agree with the City Manager

There are some in Lake City that take issue with Mr. Johnson's remarks.

After some talk about the City's labor attorney, CM Johnson concluded: "This policy is meant to protect employees and I believe it will."

Councilman Hill was not convinced and said that Capt. Davis was terminated by the new Police Chief "when she got here."

CM Johnson: "That's correct - "at will" - because he was at will."

Councilman Hill: "But that's not right."

Mr. Johnson: "The courts are going to determine if that was right or not... I believe this policy will resolve a lot of problems.  And that's the purpose of it."

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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