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    Oldsmar opts for review boar

    The council narrowly approves the grievance panel, which now needs to go to voters. The city manager says such a board is not necessary.

    By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 8, 2002

    OLDSMAR -- Over the objection of the city manager, Mayor Jerry Beverland has persuaded a majority of the City Council to move forward with plans to create a citizen grievance board that could override a decision by the manager to suspend, demote or fire a city employee.

    The change would require a referendum be placed before voters in November to change the city's charter.

    Beverland's campaign for the citizen board comes in response to the firing of longtime water department employee Chris Ward, who Beverland described as a friend who sometimes calls him "dad."

    But Beverland insists he would be pushing for the change no matter who the employee was.

    "This has nothing to do with Chris Ward," he said. "It has to do with the process."

    Notice provided by the city to Ward states that he was fired for insubordination for failing to submit to a drug and alcohol test following a minor accident in a city vehicle.

    Ward contended he was never told to take a test and he appealed to the city grievance board. The board is composed of five members, three of whom are appointed by the city manager.

    Beverland has called that a stacked deck, and said he felt Ward "got shafted." Testimony in that hearing upholds Ward's contention that he was never told to submit to a urine test, Beverland said.

    "That's what it's all about, people,' Beverland said. "Was he asked to take it? No."

    City Manager Bruce Haddock said the assistant public works director told Ward immediately after the accident that he would have to take "a test" or "the test." As a 22-year city employee, Ward knew or should have known such a test was required, Haddock said. Ward later told his supervisor he was sick and was going home rather than to City Hall, where Haddock said he was supposed to go to fill out paperwork about the accident and take a drug and alcohol test. Haddock said that amounted to "insubordination."

    The grievance board upheld Ward's dismissal.

    "To me, this is broke," Beverland said of the grievance process. "I want employees of the city to go through the grievance process where they don't have to fear for their job."

    Haddock said a citizen board would undermine his authority and would be bad for the city.

    As city manager, Haddock said, he is responsible for all city operations.

    "I think you have a good system of accountability," Haddock said. "The buck stops here."

    But if he is to carry that responsibility, Haddock said, he needs the authority to hire, promote and discipline employees.

    "I think that's one of the cornerstones of the council-mayor form of government," Haddock said.

    A citizen board would "just be creating more bureaucracy," Haddock said. "I think it would be a mistake."

    The current system works well, he said.

    "In my opinion, no one has identified a problem that needs to be solved," Haddock said.

    Beverland brought up an incident more than a year ago, in which an employee was fired by the public works director for stealing some city-owned bricks. The employee came to Haddock and explained that he did not think he was stealing the bricks. He thought the bricks were surplus and that no one would care if he took some. Haddock reinstated the employee, but he was demoted and received a pay cut.

    Beverland said that shows that Haddock "doesn't follow his own process. . . . The process didn't work because it wasn't followed."

    Haddock said it was handled informally, and properly.

    This week, the City Council voted 3-2 to have the city attorney draft a proposed charter change to create the five-member citizen grievance board, and to give that board the authority to override decisions of the city manager.

    "I think it's not fair," council member Marcelo Caruso said of the grievance process. "It's very hard to come to your boss after you've been fired and ask them to reconsider."

    Council members David Tilki and Brian Michaels voted against the measure, saying it was a major decision that should be discussed with a labor attorney first.

    Beverland said they can talk to a labor attorney later.

    It is important, Beverland said, to move forward toward a "process that all employees can feel is objective."

    At a council meeting Tuesday night, Haddock noted that in New Port Richey, council members last year voted to strip that city's Civil Service Board of final authority to overturn the city manager's disciplinary actions. The action came after the board reinstated a public works department employee fired after he admitted using marijuana during his lunch hour.

    Dunedin, Safety Harbor and Tarpon Springs all have citizen grievance boards, and their city leaders say such boards can work well.

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