Policy collides with doing the right thing

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 29, 2004

A former city employee with over 25 years service and others were caught up in a witch-hunt last year concerning the longstanding de-facto City policy; concerning small cash loans and check cashing in the Utility Department.

This unwritten yet widely used practice became a whirlwind that embroiled the Utility Department in controversy and intense scrutiny that lead to several people in the department being fired or resigning.

While this practice was used by many in the department including the senior department personnel, there does seem to be unfair and inconsistent policy aspects to the way this situation is being implemented, interpreted, and prosecuted.

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After many Utility Department personnel ensnared in this issue were dismissed or resigned, seven filed a request for a hearing before a grievance panel.

None of those who filed a grievance request were ever charged with a crime and rightfully held an expectation to some small measure of justice in the process. The grievance panel consists of three people, one selected by the employee, one by the city and one by a judge.

The panel is formed in such a manner to try to balance the rights and interests of all the parties and to adjudicate a fair and reasonable outcome.

In this particular situation, of the seven employees that filed grievances; five received rulings in their favor, but that is where the story really takes-off.

While in principal most would find this process easy to understand, the interests of fairness appear to have violently collided with policy agendas and pre-judgment by senior city staff.

When the grievance panel ruled unanimously in favor of five of the employees, that the borrowing and check cashing had become &uot;unwritten department policy&uot; and that the city had failed to prove any wrong doing, the situation took a hard turn.

This hard turn included the unusual demand that the primary witness and person prosecuting the case, the Department Head for Human Resources; Ms. Manning, disregarded the panel’s finding and further stated that the vindicated employees would not be rehired. She also directed that the panel reverse course and support the City’s position, that these employees not be rehired.

The reason that this situation is of such note; is that once the grievance process started, a process that every city employee relies upon to get a fair shake from the city in any employment scuffle, it exploded and just did not work.

This is a serious example of the processes and procedures for fairness and impartial judgements for those who serve our City, utterly failing.

Alfred Bernard III, a Norfolk lawyer who was the chairman of the Grievance Panel, refused to comply with the demands of the city’s HR Director and even went further.

He stated &uot;that in good conscience&uot; he could not reverse himself and that Ms, Manning’s reasoning was &uot;nonsensical as it would make the grievance process meaningless…&uot; Fairness and equity in this process quite obviously were not very important considerations for some of the senior city staff.

This episode calls into serious question not just how flawed the grievance process is, but also how our senior city administration works or does not work.

This specific affair clearly highlights a pervasive and widespread problem in our city leadership and culture, where prejudgment occurs behind closed doors in the name of justice and administration.

Too many in our City confuse the distinct difference between living in a terrific community and having good and fair local government.

It is very clear in this situation that the city administration was not interested in doing the right thing and in fact had already decided how the grievance process would turn out.

Sound like a familiar theme? The way this situation was adjudicated, with such a clear and compelling conflict of interest, highlights a fundamental flaw in the grievance process.

This was further aggravated by Ms. Manning’s demand that the grievance panel reverse its unanimous decision in favor of the employees and uphold the position of the city administration.

To tip this episode even further askew, it has been stated that even the senior Utility Department staff used this &uot;unauthorized/authorized service&uot;, however they were not publicly disciplined.

The next step in this sad saga could inflame the situation to an untenable level. The city administration may demand that the deck be stacked even further, by appointing a new chairman for the grievance panel, in support of the City’s position.

If this were done, I would suggest that we fire some of those making such lopsided decisions.

Roger Leonard is a Suffolk businessman and writes on local government every Tuesday in the News-Herald. He can be reached at RogerFlys@aol.com.