Human resource issues are always sensitive, all the more so when they involve public employees who perform important work for a county or community.
The two terminations in Mt. Pleasant, where issues have spilled into city council meetings and into this newspaper, illustrate why local governments must have crystal clear policies and ordinances to handle employee discipline and termination.
One of the employees, Jack Widdison, formerly co-manager of ConToy Arena, apparently understood he was a full-time employee until Mayor Michael Olsen told him, no, you’re a part-time employee.
Shouldn’t every employee receive some sort of document at the time of hire defining their status as full-time, part-time, eligible for benefits or not eligible? And shouldn’t employees be required to sign an acknowledgement of their status?
Under Mt. Pleasant policies and ordinances, part-time employees can be terminated without the usual steps, such as a warning, a pre-termination hearing or an appeal hearing.
Apparently, since Widdison is not a full-time employee and not entitled to due process under city employment policies, his fate falls to the city council. In fact, a closed hearing for Widdison was on the city council agenda the day this newspaper went to press.
The other case, involving Lynn Beesley, a full-time employee of the Public Works Department and also a city council member, raises different questions.
A Utah state statute requires all cities to enact an ordinance setting up a panel to hear appeals from disciplinary actions or terminations, so long as the employees involved are entitled to due process in employment.
Apparently, Mt. Pleasant does not have an adequate ordinance. It passed one in the 1990s, then repealed and replaced it 2003. But the 2003 replacement only addresses appeal panels for “discipline, discrimination, sexual harassment and related grievances.” It does not mention appeal of a termination.
The last we heard, Mayor Olsen has decided to allow Beesley to present his case to the city council. Since the city council is not designated by ordinance as the city’s official appeals panel, if the council rejects Beesley’s appeal, he might have grounds for further legal action.
Mt. Pleasant, and all cities in Sanpete, need to check the Utah Code (Title 10, Chapter 3, Part 11) which deals with employment issues. Where the statute directs, they need to pass ordinances spelling out how they want to handle things in their town.
However, the most needed change is a policy or ordinance stating that if you’re a city employee, or even if you hold a volunteer position reporting to the city council (for example, fire chief, or chairman of the planning and zoning commission), you cannot simultaneously serve as mayor or sit on the city council.
A city council member may need to criticize or express a concern about a manager on the city staff, as Beesley has about Colter Allen, Mt. Pleasant public works director. (Ideally, such matters should be taken up in an executive session.)
But it’s not tenable for any city employee to publicly criticize his or her boss, as Beesley has done. Throughout the work world, blasting the boss is grounds for being disciplined or fired. It’s equally untenable for a city council member who criticizes or opposes his boss, and then is disciplined for it, to potentially sit on the panel (e.g., the city council) that hears appeals of the disciplinary action.
The same applies to an appointee who runs afoul of the mayor or council, leading to the council needing to decide whether to remove the person from the post.
Such inherent conflicts of interest need to be prevented before they arise by requiring anyone employed by the city or holding an appointed position that would report to the city council to resign his or her job or appointment before being sworn into elective office.
The bottom line is that to protect employees and to protect the public from potential liability, towns need to be squeaky clean in their employment practices, policies and ordinances.