Ousted city employee asks court to uphold panel’s ruling

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 19, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

A fired city employee is asking the court to force the city to uphold a grievance panel’s unanimous decision that she be reinstated.

Late Thursday, John D. Eure Jr. filed a petition in Suffolk Circuit Court asking that the city put Darlene H. Wilkerson, one of seven public utilites employees terminated in October 2003, back on the payroll. A 25-year veteran city employee, Wilkerson was accused of cashing personal checks and using IOUs to replay borrowed public monies.

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No criminal charges were filed against Wilkerson or any other city employee.

Last spring, a three-member grievance panel – with Wilkerson, the city and the courts each selecting one member – unanimously voted that she should be reinstated and given all back pay, with the exception of one month’s pay.

In July, Circuit Court Judge Rodham T. Delk ruled that the city had the right to challenge the panel’s decision and per city policy, turned it back over to City Human Resources Director Yvonne Manning for review.

That move brought objections from Eure, who said Manning should not make the final decision because she initially recommended Wilkerson’s termination and later testified against her.

&uot;Yvonne Manning has a built-in bias,&uot; Eure said. &uot;It’s like asking the prosecutor and star witness to come back and be the judge.&uot;

Under city code, a grievance panel’s decision is &uot;final and binding if consistent with (city) policy,&uot; Manning wrote in an Aug. 17 letter to Norfolk attorney Alfred Bernard III, the court-appointed panel chairman. Manning found that panel’s decision &uot;inconsistent with at least one&uot; city policy which prohibits the unauthorized use of city property – in Wilkerson’s case, city money.

In such cases, city code dictates that the human resources director must notify the grievance panel to change its decision to make it consistent with policy, said Ray Hogge, a Norfolk attorney representing the city. She included the directive in her Aug. 17 letter.

Bernard refused, saying that &uot;complying…would gut the grievance process…of any semblance of fairness and equitable treatment it promises employees.

&uot;My concern and authority is to make decisions in accordance with evidence presented and the law as it pertains to that evidence. Your request, I judge, takes me beyond those bounds. I cannot do that.&uot;

Hogge, who specializes in employment law, said he has never seen a situation when a grievance panel refused to follow city policy.

&uot;Where we are now is not so much Ms. Wilkerson but what to do about the panel’s refusal to change its decision,&uot; Wilkerson said. &uot;I’ve never had something like this happen.&uot;

One option may be to have the state Supreme Court appoint a new panel chairman who would support city policy, Hogge said.