by Allison Sayer for Seward City News-
The Seward City Council held a public work session on Tuesday February 13 to continue working on the city’s employee grievance process.
The process had not been updated since the 1970’s, and recent use of the grievance process had called attention to the need for reform. The city held a public work session on January 22 to discuss this. City Attorney Will Earnhart prepared a draft of code changes and new code in response to comments made at that meeting. These documents are available on the City of Seward website: http://www.cityofseward.us/ Following this meeting, Mayor Squires will create another draft of the proposed code.
For over three hours, council members and the city attorney painstakingly reviewed line by line of proposed code, or law, changes. The city council has the authority to change code through a series of public meetings such as this one. The city administration is tasked with creating policies to support the code. Creating policy is outside of the purview of city council, although they can make suggestions.
Mayor Squires requested that the next draft prominently contain the provision that employees shall not experience intimidation, harassment, retaliation, or a poor evaluation because they brought forth a problem. Although that provision is currently contained in the code, Mayor Squires would like it to be closer to the beginning so the employee can see it right away.
Having the definition of a grievance prominent within the document was also important to all present. The justification for this is that it is important for employees and supervisors to know whether a problem is a grievance or a complaint. A grievance is defined as a “specific violation of rights under or failure to apply a section or sections of the city charter, city code, personnel rules and regulations or misapplication or interpretation thereof, or departmental rules and regulations, which directly pertain to the terms or conditions of employment of such employee or group of employees by the City of Seward.”
The draft of the code goes on to state, “A grievance is not to resolve general policy complaints or concerns regarding other employees.” Council members requested that the code specifically state that these concerns are to be resolved at the department level. This was meant to state that these problems still should be resolved.
Whether a problem is a grievance or a complaint, the city code specifically states the employee must first discuss the problem with his or her immediate supervisor. The hope is that this conversation will resolve the majority of workplace problems, which result from a failure to communicate.
A discussion ensued as to whether the city should require a paper trail of all of these conversations. Some attendees were against this out of concern could foster a “document focused” conversation rather than a genuine discussion of the problem, and that the amount of paperwork produced could get out of hand. Mayor Squires and City Attorney Earnhart advocated for requiring this step to protect the employee. Squires made the additional point that this could alert supervisors as to whether a large number of complaints are being generated within a specific department. Whether this documentation is ultimately required or not, there is nothing prohibiting employees from maintaining records of these conversations.
There was also a lot of discussion of the timeline following the filing of a formal grievance. For each step along the way, council members discussed within how many days a response would be legally required.
Another major topic of conversation was the independent panel that must review serious grievances that will result in termination or a long suspension. There is usually a standing group of people to pull from to fill this panel in the event of such an issue. However, there currently is none. The city administration would like to wait until union negotiations are settled before recreating this group in order to avoid “bad optics.” The city does not want to create the appearance that creation of the panel and union organization are related.
There was also discussion of ensuring that the pool of panel members include people who hold “supervisory and non-supervisory” positions. This was meant to ensure panel members could see all sides of the issue.
There has not been a need for a panel to evaluate a grievance for some years. In the event that it is needed, it can be quite difficult for the city to find members of the community who are available to serve.
The council did allude to documents submitted by local citizen Carol Griswold with regard to reforming the grievance process. Mayor Squires was in favor of adopting some of the proposed ideas. However, he stated that the current discussion was a discussion about the city code, and that many of the suggestions in the documents were more suitable towards changes in policy.
City Attorney Will Earnhart will create a new draft of the relevant city code based on this discussion. Additional work sessions will follow. A recording of this meeting is available on the City of Seward website: http://www.cityofseward.us/index.aspx?NID=912.