By MELINDA WILLIAMS
Pulaski Town Council’s attorney issued a caution Tuesday that some members’ desire to have direct access to town employees could violate the Town Charter, and possibly even its Grievance Procedure.
Vice Mayor Joseph Goodman would like to establish a committee of council members to meet with an existing staff committee, but the Charter requires that council go through the town manager to communicate with employees other than the three employed by council: town attorney, town manager and clerk of council.
“Except for the purpose of discussions, informal reviews, investigating injuries and/or official investigations, the council or its members shall communicate with town officials and employees who are subject to the direction and supervision of the manager solely through the manager and neither the council nor its members shall give orders to any such official or employee, either publicly or privately,” the Charter states.
Explaining the reason for his proposal, Goodman said he has concerns that information reaching the staff is different from what is being discussed in council meetings. For example, he said employees have told him they heard council wants to cut staff in the upcoming budget, when council “explicitly said at a council meeting that we’re not even entertaining the idea of cutting staff.”
He said he serves on a committee at Virginia Tech that can reach out to the president and board of visitors on occasion to make sure what staff is hearing and what university leaders are doing are aligned.
“My request was that the council be able to have a representative or two that can speak with a staff committee, maybe not staff as a general rule, to make sure everything’s in alignment – not to give staff instruction in what to do in any way, but simply to hear their thoughts and to allow them to hear our thoughts, if they so choose,” said Goodman. “In the Charter there is a mention of ‘discussions’ and I was hoping the Charter permits ‘discussions.’”
Mayor Jeff Worrell asked town attorney David Warburton whether there is any reason a member of council or himself couldn’t schedule a meeting with the town’s public works or police department if they wanted.
“It’s perfectly clear to me there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that as long as you do it through the town manager,” responded Warburton. “I will not address whether the council has the confidence in the town manager that I do that when I ask him to do something he takes it where it needs to be. That’s my experience, it may not be yours.”
Warburton said the Charter doesn’t anticipate there being any one-on-one contact between council and employees beyond the three that are under the direct supervision of council. “I’m not trying to read it (Charter) one way or the other, but I don’t know how to read it any other way.”
The attorney continued, “It’s pretty clear that any contact other than coming in to pay your water bill and saying ‘how are you today, Ms. Brown,’ is contact between a member of council and an employee.
“Anything of any substance is to be directed through the town manager precisely because we have a town manager form of government as defined by the Commonwealth of Virginia and its General Assembly. I know you’re real tired of hearing me say it, but you have three employees and here they are (referring to himself, Town Manager John Hawley and Clerk Trish Cruise). The rest are Mr. Hawley’s employees.”
Worrell said he has set up a schedule to meet with town departments in the past.
“Surely you do that through the town manager,” Warburton said.
“Well, yes, but I don’t think he was present when I (met with them),” Worrell added.
Warburton said he doesn’t think it requires Hawley to be present, but it gives him the opportunity to be if he so wishes.
Worrell asked Goodman how that is different from what he proposes.
“It’s actually much different,” Goodman responded. He said Virginia Tech’s system allows staff to speak more freely because management isn’t present.
He said the way the Charter is written “complicates” the matter even further because “some of our employees are actually town residents and they have every right to talk to us because they live here in town and they’re our bosses.”
Goodman suggested council might need to work it out with Hawley so that they have access to the staff on a regular basis in case staff wants to clarify something.
“This is an opportunity for when the staff has questions – sometimes they will take (questions) to Mr. Hawley and that’s the correct avenue in most cases – but if they’re still unsure of something, still concerned, then they also should have the right to ask council in some form,” said Goodman. “Maybe that communication still has to be shared with Mr. Hawley … but I’m hoping there’s a way staff can communicate with us as well.”
Councilman Jamie Radcliffe asked whether Goodman is referring to situations where an employee “has a beef” with his or her boss.
Goodman said that’s not his goal. “That’s a management issue and we have no need to get involved in that. That’s a non-issue. This is about policy issues,” he said.
Councilman Greg East said his employer has a similar policy to the one at Virginia Tech and the whole intent is “communication.” He said he’s disappointed that it may not be possible for council to meet with staff under the Charter. He reiterated the fact that many staff reside in the town.
“Everyone is in favor of good communication, but it’s not whether it’s a good idea, it’s whether you can do it,” Warburton said. “We seem to be lost in what a great idea it would be or how it would improve the lives of our citizens or employees.”
He continued, “I’m just telling you no matter how great the idea is, or how a completely different, albeit semi-governmental, body does it over in Blacksburg, is just irrelevant at this point because you have a Charter that says this is the way you’ve got to do it. It doesn’t say unless you don’t feel like it and it doesn’t say unless you’ve got a better idea. It says you can’t. It’s not as black and white as I’m making it sound, but it’s pretty close.”
As for the issue of employees living in the town limits, Warburton said, “Nothing prevents an employee who is also a citizen from coming to a council meeting; I don’t think there’s anything that prevents a non-citizen who is an employee from coming to a meeting either.”
Goodman said he thinks everyone is in agreement they’d like to find a way to be able to meet with staff. However, he asked how it can be done legally or how the Charter can be changed to allow it. “Maybe we need to ask other municipalities if they do it and, if so, how do they do it legally,” he said.
“The easy answer – but not an easy process – is to ask for changes to the Charter,” Warburton responded. “I want to work with council on this, but the torture we’re putting ourselves through to find a way those words don’t mean what they mean gives me great concern; especially since we’re discussing this – as we should – publicly and recording it.
“The harder you try to squint to see the words differently than they are … itself will be taken into consideration if you try to say ‘now that I’ve squinted properly I can see the words that I wanted to see.’ I don’t see a way of doing it without going through the town manager, as is fairly explicit in the Charter,” Warburton concluded.
East asked Warburton how he interprets the phrase “Except for the purposes of discussion?”
Warburton started to answer, but Goodman interjected, “Comma. It says except for the purposes of discussion, comma.”
Warburton paused a moment and said, “I’m sorry Mr. East, I’m trying to answer you’re question, but I’m being told there’s a significance in this comma and I need to know that before we come back to your question.
“What’s the significance of a comma?” he asked Goodman, who responded, “When I studied grammar in middle school I was told that the comma makes it separate from what follows it.”
Warburton agreed a “discussion” is “distinctly different” from an “informal review” and that it also is distinct from ‘”investigating injuries.” He said he read the sentence, “Except for the purpose of discussions – and other things – the council shall only communicate with town officials through the town manager.”
“The comma is inconsequential in my judgment,” Warburton said.
Warburton pointed out the originally stated purpose of the meetings was to make sure there is a proper understanding of council’s discussions and actions. He expressed concern over the suggestion staff would feel free to talk in the absence of management.
“If we do have to work through the town manager, we need to determine what that process is,” Goodman said. “I’m trying to stay away from violating the Charter.” He said he would like to know how to stay within the guidelines of the Charter.
Warburton cautioned council about getting into a situation where the town’s grievance procedure is violated. He said having information filter up to council from staff could pose such a situation. He pointed out the intent of the Charter is to make council the policy-making body and the town manager the executive to execute the directions of council.
“It’s meant to insulate and isolate you and the employees,” Warburton told council. “That’s its purpose. We may disagree whether it meets that purpose or whether it should do that. But that is, in fact, the way it is.”
The way to avoid a violation of the Charter, he said, is to put in a request to Hawley to set up a meeting with whatever employee or employees the council would like to meet. He said Hawley can then decide whether he wants to be present for the meeting.
But even following that procedure, he warned council they need to be “very careful that it doesn’t violate” the Grievance Procedure.
“If the concern is that the town employees are not getting your perception of what is correct – they’re not reading the minutes, they’re hearing gossip – I don’t know how to correct that, that’s a management issue.” Warburton said. “Mr. Hawley can try harder to get the information to the employees in a neutral way. The part that concerns me the most is the Grievance and you have to be awful careful about that,” he said.
Worrell suggested a committee could be appointed to meet with staff “to see how it works.”
However, Goodman said he thinks council needs to establish rules on how to do it properly and the committee needs to be trained on how to recognize grievance issues “so we don’t get ourselves in hot water.”
Warburton encouraged council not to “institutionalize” the process by making it a standing committee that “roves from department to department.” He suggested they use the system always available and make appointments through Hawley.
“There’s an intentional bottleneck there and it’s still there tomorrow,” he said.
Goodman said he had received a sufficient answer to his question. “It sounds basically like what I thought, we can’t do it,” he said.
Hawley said he would make an inquiry with the Institutes of Government to find out if any other councils are meeting with staff and, if so, how it’s being handled.