I take no pleasure in criticizing our city but I feel compelled to call it as I see it as it pertains to the East Ridge Personnel Review Board.
This past Tuesday the board met in a closed-to-the public meeting to hear the appeal of former police Chief J.R. Reed. Reed was fired in March for various reasons, including lack of leadership and allowing a hostile work environment to exist.
By its own rules, any terminated employee has 10 days in which to ask for an appeal to the PRB. There is no provision for an extension as far as I know.
Yet, the city granted an extension, a very long extension to Reed. Four months to me seems a bridge too far.
Then, after setting a precedent with having an open hearing in the case of former ERPD Officer Adam Rose, new City Manager Chris Dorsey decided this one was closed to the public. Dorsey said that he had received direction from officials with the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) in regard to the meeting being off limits to the public and press.
Activist Frances Pope got wind of the closed meeting and contacted the Tennessee Department of Open Records. A written opinion from its legal counsel concluded the meeting should be open to the public in part because the PRB members were appointed by the East Ridge City Council. A day later, the open records department legal counsel reversed his opinion when it was pointed out the PRB reports only to the City Manager, not the City Council.
All of this is a perfect waste of time. Why? The East Ridge Personnel Review Board’s decision is simply advisory and non-binding.
Get this … when the PRB came into existence by ordinance in 2009, it had the power to overturn the firing of a city employee. However, the ordinance was later amended to render the board impotent.
You’ve got to understand that when the council created the PRB it was just prior to the hiring of our first “professional” city manager, one William Whitson. You see, our city leaders – and more importantly, high-ranking department heads and middle managers with the city – had no idea if Whitson would come in and “clean house.” After all, the city was a “work at will” shop then and the city manager could fire an employee without cause.
When everyone was comfortable that Whitson had no intention of pursuing wholesale firings, the council amended the ordinance. Subsequently, the council added protection to the employees by adopting a policy that the city manager would have to “show cause” if he decided to terminate an employee.
When Whitson was shown the door by the council, the city hired Tim Gobble. Gobble had no problem dropping the hammer on Beth Tatum, who was the sole employee at the history center.
Tatum contacted Mimi Lowery, a member of the personnel review board at the time, and asked to appeal her firing. Gobble stepped in and said Tatum must go through City Hall to request the hearing. Tatum never got her appeal before the PRB.
So, she sued the City for wrongful termination. She won the suit and was awarded damages. She was given a job within the city only later to quit.
So, the East Ridge Personnel Review Board went dormant. According to its rules, the members must be appointed on a yearly basis. That was never done.
When Officer Rose got axed by acting city manager Kenny Custer in November of 2018, he appealed it to the personnel review board. Uh oh, there was a problem … the members’ terms had long expired. A fire drill of sorts ensued and there was a flurry of activity by council to appoint/re-appoint its members; you know to make it all legal and stuff.
When Rose’s appeal was heard in an open meeting at City Hall – a four-hour ordeal with the City Attorney serving as the prosecutor – the PRB came down on the side of the city, upholding the termination. Its written findings were deemed to be an open record … all one and a half pages.
Now to Reed. Tuesday’s hours-long closed-door hearing in the training room of City Hall was continued. It is unclear when it will resume. It is also unclear if the findings of the personnel review board will be deemed a record that the public and press will get a look at.
It’s a no-win situation, as far as I’m concerned.
I personally believe that there is no way on God’s green earth that the personnel review board will overturn Reed’s firing. If they uphold the firing, the PRB could be perceived simply as a rubber stamp for the City Manager. Not a good thing.
If the PRB, in a closed meeting, overturns the firing it provides a substantial foundation for a future wrongful termination lawsuit that Reed is almost certain to bring.
I suggest the council dissolve the East Ridge Personnel Review Board and save the city embarrassment and wasting all those concerned time.