MOUNT CARMEL — Against the advice of the city attorney, city manager and University of Tennessee advisers, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen opted Thursday not to approve a new personnel policy that eliminates an employee grievance procedure.
City Attorney John Pevy told the BMA that its current policy increases the town’s liability by giving employees rights they aren’t guaranteed in Tennessee as an “at-will” employer state.
The board was asked to approve the second and final reading of an ordinance repealing the current personnel policy so that it could then approve the new policy by resolution, which requires only one reading. When a vote to repeal the old policy failed 2-4, the vote on the new policy was a moot point.
What would the new policy do?
The new policy would have halted the practice of allowing employees to appeal disciplinary action or termination to the BMA.
The new policy would have also eliminated employees’ vacation buyback option, which according to City Manager Mike Housewright has been abused to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, as well as bring the town into compliance with the federal Family Maternity Leave Act (FMLA).
The proposed new policy was recommended by the University of Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS).
Who was opposed to the changes?
Mayor Chris Jones, Vice Mayor Carl Wolfe and Alderman Eugene Christian were the most vocally opposed to eliminating the grievance procedure.
Christian said, “I like the old one (personnel policy). I think it’s better. It gives the employees the right to come. ... In the state of Tennessee it says you can dismiss anybody without reason, anytime, and you don’t have to explain why or give a reason. To me, that ain’t really right. ... I think the working men and women in the state of Tennessee deserves better than this.”
Jones said he didn’t like one person having that much authority.
The argument in favor of the change
Pevy noted that regardless of whether the board members like or dislike Tennessee’s at-will employment status, that is the law of the state.
“By giving the grievance procedure that we do, we risk significant liability and the chance of losing a whole lot of money,” Pevy told the board. “It’s something we can avoid by passing a new policy. We’re not an employer that provides rights in employment. If we create the semblance of rights of employment under contract, we open a can of worms that in a potential lawsuit — you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
Pevy added, “Reverting to the general at-will employment law for the state solves that problem.”
Pevy noted that the BMA has hired Housewright to make personnel decisions. If the BMA doesn’t like the decisions that Housewright makes, it has the right to fire him.
Christian: The new policy is “mistreating employees”
“This at-will, it plainly tells you they can fire you at any time for any reason or no reason. Why would you want to treat your employees like that to begin with?” Christian asked Pevy.
“It says, as long as it’s lawful,” Pevy replied.
Alderman Garrett White noted that the board hired Housewright to manage personnel matters.
“If we don’t think he can do it properly, then we need to get rid of Mr. Housewright. Not leave the policy like it is. Tennessee is an at-will state for work. We need to be an at-will city for work. We need to be in line with the state, and if we have a problem with Mr. Housewright’s handling of matters, we need to take that up with him, not be involved with every situation that comes up.”
The motion to repeal the current ordinance failed by a vote of 2-4. Aldermen Jennifer Williams and Garrett White voted in favor of repealing. Those opposed were Eugene Christian, Margaret Christian, Wolfe and Jones.
Alderman Wanda Davidson said she abstained “because I’m totally confused at this point.”