Monday, May 16, 2005

Fire at will

The city council hoped to solve three problems with the resolution it passed in support of an appointed chief. First, it wanted to make an appointed chief more attractive. It didn't succeed.

Second, it proposed a better way of selecting appointed officials than has been used in the past. I hope that the idea behind that is refined and applied to a much greater extent in future hirings. They do need to cut down the influence of labor organizations though.

The last problem it addressed, protection of the chief, was really fire-at-will vs. terminate-for-cause. Texas is basically a "fire at will" state. There are very few restrictions on why an employer can fire an employee. Employees serve at the pleasure of their boss unless there is a contract or employment agreement that says otherwise. An employer can fire for anything or no reason at all. That can cause problems in some situations, especially in jobs related to public safety.

The local civil service was set up to protect public safety officers, ie police officer and firefighters, from arbitrary threats to their job. In the late 19th and early 20th century, police and other political jobs were given out as rewards for political favors. Texas, like most states, developed and implemented the local civil service for public safety to remove these abuses from the rank and file officers. The police chief was and is mostly outside of the civil service protections. The local community has the responsibility to protect their chiefs. We currently do that through the electoral process. If we move to an appointed chief, we have the responsibility to set up a good, solid, system to protect the chief from politics and special interests. We need to ensure that once we have a good chief, he is only removed for good cause, not at the whim of some politician or special interest group.

That is a start but there is more that needs to be done. I was discussing this issue with a city employee when they asked "Why give special protection to the chief?" I responded that the chief was an important, high visability position easily subject to abuse. On reflection, my answer was incomplete. The chiefs position does deserve protection from arbitrary firing. It is based on a special trust between the chief and the citizens of San Angelo. Truthfuly, the same can be said of any city employee. We expect the Police Chief, City Manager, Public Works Director, City Attorney, and the guys fixing the streets, reading water meters and running the waste treatment facility to do the best job they can, and do the right thing to protect the city and citizens of San Angelo. That is also a special trust. The city employees deserve protection from arbitrary termination as part of that special, mutual trust.

A high profile position such as a police chief or city manager can wait to accept a job until a contract with acceptable protections such as outside independant arbitration is agreed upon. Lower level employees don't have that luxury. They can theoreticaly be let go for matters that have nothing to do with their job or the best interests of the city and its citizens.

We need to protect our chiefs from the threat of aribitrary termination. We need to do that for all of our city employees.

1 comment:

  1. A look at section 38 of the city charter shows that the ability to negotiate a contract is severely limited. This will have to be changed to allow for some protection of an appointed chief.

    I have also been informed that the city does have a published grievance procedure. It doesn't have the force of the charter or ordinance but it seems to be working reasonably well. More as we find it out.