BOC moves to repeal Civil Service System
The Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) took the first steps toward repealing the county’s Civil Service System its Tuesday night meeting. The system covers approximately 80 employees.
Commissioners voted unanimously to approve a resolution directing the County Manager Lloyd Kerr, Human Resources Director Keyra Fray and County Attorney Megan Martin to start the process for notifying affected employees and scheduling public hearings on the topic.
The vote followed an earlier work session where commissioners heard attorney Kayla Van Oosterwyck of Jarrard & Davis, LLP explain that Newton County employees are currently working with two different employee handbooks. One handbook is applicable to employees hired before 2006 and one for all employees hired after.
“We currently are working with a system where there are two employee handbooks. We were asked to look at what could be done to simplify that system and create one employee handbook that will apply to all employees,” she said.
Van Oosterwyck told commissioners the county implemented its Civil Service System in 1991 and simultaneously adopted a set of personnel policies which provided that county employees covered by the civil service system could only be terminated for cause.
“That system remained in place as it was adopted until 2006, when the county adopted an “at will” policy which applied to any employee hired after May 1, 2006,” she said.
Van Oosterwyck said when employees are “at will” they serve at the pleasure of the county and can be terminated for good reason, bad reason or no reason at all.
“So long as it is not related to some protected classification of sex, race or national origin,” she said. “And for employees who are properly covered by the Civil Service System, these are employees who have a constitutionally protected property interest in continued employment.
“This is functionally the opposite of at will employment and any employee who has a property interest in continued employment can only be dismissed for cause and they may not be terminated without receiving due process rights, which would require the county to provide them notice of the reason for any disciplinary action and provide them a meaningful opportunity to respond at a pre-termination and/ or a termination hearing.”
Van Oosterwyck said the remedy to the situation of two employee handbooks would be to repeal the entire Civil Service System and return all county employees to “at will” status.
She told commissioners there are due process requirements for the repeal of the Civil Service System.
“We need to notify all affected employees of the proposed change and why we are proposing it. We need to permit those employees a reasonable time to express their questions and concerns. We can do this through a through a comment period, as well as a public hearing,” she said.
“We would have to bring this to the Board again for a final decision on whether to repeal or not the county’s Civil Service System.”
She said the final decision would be made by the BOC in an open meeting.
District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz expressed concern that there should be provisions made for employees who have been loyal to the county in the event of a reduction of force.
“One of the experiences I’ve had with this coming up before was when we had a reduction of force in 2009. Those who were in the civil service category didn’t have to worry about being reduced,” she said, “I would think that might come up now if we move to an at will, that many of them , if they’ve been employed as far back as 1991, they’ve been loyal to the county. Is there some kind of provision that is made for loyalty when there is a reduction in force given that they might be an at will employee?”
Van Oosterwyck said the BOC has flexibility in that they get to draft a policy on reduction of force.
“If that is something that you want to see incorporated to account for terminating the Civil Service System is to say that one of the criteria for a reduction of force , we can write that into the policy,” she said, “It will depend on what the county wants to retain.”
Schulz said she wouldn’t want to see loyal employees become casualties of an at will system.
“Our human resources are our greatest resources,” she said.
Van Oosterwyck offered commissioners an estimated timeline for making the change, with all affected employees being notified by Sept 30. The open comment period would be from Oct. 1-Oct. 30, with a hearing on the repeal by Oct 30. The county would then complete a draft of new personnel policies by Nov. 30, with commissioners voting on the repeal and adoption of the new personnel policies by Dec. 19. The new personnel policies would go into effect Jan. 1, 2018.
She told The Covington News there will be a lot more information available in coming weeks regarding the new personnel policies and what benefits and/or protections County employees will have under those policies, as well as how the policies will apply to employees of elected officials.