An appeal from Barbara Gonzales — the Killeen finance director who was fired in December — has tested city policies set up to protect employees.
Two days after the four-member Killeen Civilian Personnel Hearing Board unanimously ruled in favor of Gonzales’ reinstatement last week, Killeen City Manager Glenn Morrison rejected the board’s recommendation.
Gonzales filed a lawsuit in March against the city under the Texas Whistleblower Act, alleging that she was fired for reporting that Morrison had broken state and local finance laws.
The rejection of the board’s findings has caused an outcry among some local officials, who have begun to question how the city policies should be changed to ensure a similar situation does not occur in the future.
‘Lunacy’ of proceeding
Before day’s end on April 24, Killeen Mayor Dan Corbin, who attended the hearing, posted his opinions about the proceedings on his Facebook page, Dan Corbin for Mayor.
Corbin called the board “biased”
and pointed out what he called the “lunacy of the proceeding” in which the board’s recommendation would be subjected to the approval of the city manager.
Although Corbin received a lot of criticism for his own bias in the case — he also is named in Gonzales’ whistleblower lawsuit — the feeling that the hearing was a waste of time was felt across political lines.
Board chairman Fredrick Bee said that in the five years he has served on the board, the only time a city manager has agreed with a board recommendation is when the board voted to uphold the original decision.
Morrison had an opportunity to change the board member appointments in January, but chose the current five members. The item was approved by the Killeen City Council on Jan. 8 without discussion.
Four-year board member Bee, four-year board member Brockley Moore and three-year board member Rosa Hereford were reappointed with Morrison’s recommendation. Valerie Jordan and Dirk Davis were appointed to fill two vacant seats on the board.
Davis did not attend the April 24 hearing and has not been involved in Gonzales’ case.
Two options have been proposed in the past week to change the city’s employee grievance policies.
One option, proposed by Corbin, would be to get rid of the hearing board. It would require action from the city manager, who currently has control over the internal city policy.
Another, proposed by Hereford, would grant the employee hearing board the power to make the final, binding decision on all personnel hearings.
Corbin said he thought the decision should remain up to the city manager because of his position as chief executive of the city.
“If I was the city manager, I would not want to rely on an external board to determine whether I was justified in firing one of my department heads,” Corbin said.
Hereford said the board’s decision should be the final say in the matter. “I have a problem with the board if our recommendation does not count,” she said.
“I think we all are intelligent people who can decide from what we read and what we heard, what should be done.”
Moore said the case would have been less contentious if Morrison had not participated in the hearing.
“I think that we wouldn’t have had as many problems if the city manager would have excused himself from the situation,” Moore said. “You’ve got to have checks and balances to maintain the moral and ethical standards of the city.”
Jordan said that because the city manager was directly involved in the case, the council should have had the final say.
“The hearing board heard the facts of the appeal, and I think Mrs. Gonzales proved her case,” Jordan said.
Hereford said she plans to sit down with the city manager to talk about the purpose of the board for future cases.
Law and policy
City staff estimates that the Killeen Civilian Personnel Hearing Board was established around 1980 in the city’s personnel policy handbook. The Killeen Employee Policies and Rules, or KEEPER policy, which establishes and governs the hearing board, is not a law.
The city manager’s power “to appoint and, when necessary for the good of the service, remove all officers and employees of the city,” is granted in the city charter, which is considered local constitutional law.
City spokeswoman Hilary Shine said the policy likely has been amended since 1980 but the city’s records only go back 13 years.
Voters would have to adopt a city charter amendment to give the board the authority to make the final binding decision on all personnel matters, as the city of Austin did in November.
Municipal governments across Texas range widely on the policies that govern employee appeals and grievances.
In small to mid-size cities — Killeen is considered a mid-size city — employee policies allow the city manager to have the final decision in most personnel matters.
In both College Station (population 95,142) and Waco (population 126,697) the city finance director is hired and fired by the city manager.
In Temple (population 67,188), the Temple City Council would have the final vote on whether the finance director would be reinstated. In Temple, five city employees — the city secretary, the finance director, the city attorney, the city manager and the municipal judge — are all appointed by the council. Those employees also can only be fired by the council.
The Killeen administration allows only the municipal judge and the city manager to be appointed by council members.
For most other non-civil service employees in the city of Temple, the city manager is the final arbiter.
“It causes the big three (the city manager, city attorney and finance director) to have to work together closely and openly,” said Randy Stoneroad, Temple’s director of Human Resources.