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City manager questions board's power

The New Port Richey city manager wants to eliminate the Civil Service Board after it reinstated an employee he fired.

By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- Six weeks ago, an equipment operator for the city of New Port Richey was fired after he was arrested for possessing marijuana and drug paraphernalia during work hours.

Three weeks ago, the city's Civil Service Board -- hearing its first appeal in more than 14 years -- reinstated the worker, Leonard Reeves, and recommended he be suspended or ordered to undergo rehabilitation.

Now City Manager Gerald Seeber wants to get rid of the board that overruled his decision to get rid of Reeves.

On Friday, in a memo to council members for their meeting next week, Seeber asked them to consider eliminating the board and alternative forms of appeals.

The Civil Service Board hears disciplinary appeals for the city's non-unionized employees. After a three-hour hearing, during which Reeves admitted to using marijuana during his lunch hour, the board voted 4-1 to reinstate him, reasoning that one mistake wasn't enough to wipe out his 16 years of service. Under city code, the board's decision is final.

In his memo, Seeber said their decision prompted his suggestion to eliminate the board. Seeber did not return calls seeking comment Friday.

"This decision by the Civil Service Board should be of great concern to the City Council and the citizens of New Port Richey," Seeber wrote. The decision "does not reflect the values of the City Council or the residents of the city."

Seeber added that the decision leaves the city open to future liability, and that keeping an employee with a known history of "dangerous behavior" would expose the city to financial damages for negligent retention if Reeves' actions caused injuries due to use of illegal substances while at work.

Seeber said the recent case is a good example of why the current structure needs to be revised and is not a good fit with the council-manager form of government.

"The Civil Service Board is not directly accountable for its decision to anyone," he said. "The board has the ability to intervene in the employer-employee relationship and alter the decisions of the City Council, as implemented by the city manager."

These are the alternatives that Seeber has proposed:

The department director would conduct a pre-disciplinary hearing with the help of the personnel administrator and decide on the disciplinary action. The employee could appeal the decision to the city manager, who would give the employee an evidentiary hearing, and make a final determination.

The department head would conduct a hearing. The employee could appeal the action to the city manager, and a third party arbitrator would conduct a post-disciplinary hearing.

The department head would conduct a pre-disciplinary hearing. A committee would conduct a post-disciplinary hearing and make a recommendation to the city manager, who would make a final decision.

Civil Services Board Chairman Robert A. Moore said he is upset the city manager brought this up without talking to him first.

"Instead of cluttering up council duties, they have decided to have boards, and the boards would ferret out some of the other matters, and advise the council, so to keep council open to other decisions," Moore said. For years the board has not been active, "but now we have an active board with five people sitting and actively doing the job on behalf of the City Council. And they want to do away with it because, for the first time, we've controverted something that Seeber wanted, and he wants to take his ball and go home," Moore said.

"What will happen if they make a decision on a zoning board or the cultural affairs board that's contrary to Seeber? Is he going to say let's disband them?"

Moore, who is running for a seat on the New Port Richey City Council in the upcoming elections, was recently appointed to the board for a second three-year term.

"He has literally created a fiefdom down here, and he's the emperor," Moore said of Seeber. "It's his way or the highway."

Council members reached Friday said they were troubled the board had reinstated Reeves but said they had not had a chance to carefully read Seeber's memo, so could not say whether they would support the elimination of the board.

"My question is, was the board influenced by peer pressure? I think the answer is yes," council member Tom Finn said. "I am open to possibilities, as long as if the person felt that they had been wrongfully terminated they could still have recourse if they truly believe that they were wrong."

Added council member Ginny Miller: "An advisory board of citizens is preferable to none at all," she said. "The question is where does that authority begin and end."

If the ordinance is adopted, then it would get a second and final reading on April 3.

- Jennifer Goldblatt covers business in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6229 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6229. Her e-mail address is goldblatt@sptimes.com.

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