Is the city of Killeen’s employee grievance panel wasting its time?
That’s a legitimate question in the wake of last week’s decision by City Manager Glenn Morrison to uphold his firing of former finance director Barbara Gonzales.
Morrison announced his decision two days after the four-member Civilian Personnel Hearing Board unanimously recommended that Gonzales be reinstated, on the basis that her termination “was a disproportionate penalty.”
The board’s chairman pointed out that neither Morrison, nor any previous city manager, had documented counseling or reprimands given to Gonzales during her 14 years with the city.
In a statement explaining his decision, Morrison cited Gonzales’ actions related to an investigation of the city’s Fleet Services Department, including defying the police chief’s directive not to go to Fleet Services during the investigation, and attempting to contact an employee about the investigation — in violation of Gonzales’ administrative leave, then lying to police about the attempted contact. Morrison noted that no evidence was presented during Gonzales’ hearing before the review board to refute those charges.
During that April 24 hearing, the board listened to almost six hours of testimony and heard from several witnesses, including Morrison, who could not document any reprimands given to Gonzales prior to her October suspension. The board submitted its recommendation Tuesday. On Thursday, that recommendation was rejected.
No doubt, the review board and city manager used different criteria in coming to their disparate conclusions. Given their different perspectives going into the hearing, that’s not surprising. The problem is that under the city’s current employee grievance procedures, only one of those perspectives really matters.
Under the city charter, the city manager has the authority to hire and fire all city employees, with the exception of the municipal judge, who is appointed by the Killeen City Council. Appointments of department heads and the city attorney are subject to council approval.
But the city manager also gets the final say if a fired employee challenges the termination — no matter what the review board recommends. And this case was further complicated by the fact that not only was Morrison a witness in Gonzales’ review board hearing, but he is a defendant in a lawsuit she has filed against the city over her termination. Given that background, it seemed unlikely that the board’s opinion would prevail. With fired Fleet Services employee Jonathan Acker scheduled to go before the review board Tuesday, it will be interesting to see the process play out again, especially since he has also filed a lawsuit against the city over his termination.
Obviously, all employee grievance cases are different, but the outcomes don’t seem to be. The review board’s chairman told the Herald last week that over the last five years, the city manager has never gone along with the board’s recommendation, unless it affirmed the original decision. So, why have a review board in the first place?
Mayor Dan Corbin, who was critical of the board’s handling of Gonzales’ hearing, has argued the board is unnecessary. In one respect, he’s correct — if the board’s recommendation is nonbinding, the board’s value is questionable.
However, review board member Rosa Hereford sees the panel’s role differently. The former six-term council member believes the board should have the final say in employee termination cases, as is the case in Austin, where a November charter election gave a five-member commission the authority to arbitrate all employee grievances.
Perhaps a better solution would be to keep Killeen’s employee review panel, but put the final decision in the hands of both the city manager and the council. That would serve as a check to the city manager’s autonomy while not undermining the city manager’s authority. However, in cases where the city manager is named in the employee grievance — as in the Gonzales case — the council alone would have the final say, as one review board member suggested last week.
Giving the council the last word would be especially appropriate when a city department head is seeking a review. Since the council already must approve the appointment of department heads, authorizing their termination as well is a logical next step.
Another option would be to let the municipal judge make the final determination on employee grievances. That would put the decision in the hands of an impartial third party who answers only to the council.
No matter what options are considered, the council must work to propose a better review process — one that benefits both the city and its employees.
As it stands, the current process appears to be a waste of time — and that benefits no one.