Attorney probes personnel matters

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lewisburg's lawyer is investigating whether councilmen violated Tennessee's open meetings law by consulting with each other on whether a police officer's time card conflicts with his checkout time on a dispatcher's log resulting in overpayment.

"I've not found any information to verify wrong-doing at this time," City Attorney Bill Haywood said Thursday afternoon when he did not expect to reach a conclusion by press time Tuesday. "I am doing my job by looking into and talking to and investigating anyone who knows about this situation."

The allegations are twofold. They were made and briefly discussed during the City Council's monthly meeting last Tuesday. Councilman Quinn Stewart made allegations during the public forum and that led to a clear consensus among the councilmen that Haywood should investigate. The city attorney agreed.

According to Haywood, the allegations are that:

* "Councilmen were alleged to have been meeting about an employee outside the parameters of the Sunshine Law."

State law says that decisions by various government panels "are not supposed to be made outside the public's view," Haywood said. "That was kind of the implication" by Stewart.

There's "an allegation of possible decision-making about something that should have been done in public," the city attorney said. "Councilmen, like lawyers, shouldn't give the appearance of impropriety."

* One police officer's time card shows he consistently went off duty about a half hour after his radio call to the police dispatcher to say he's left work for the day, according to unconfirmed information.

Haywood was assigned to follow-up on such an allegation. City Manager Eddie Fuller has explained there's been no overpayment. As far as Fuller could tell, the policeman in question worked the number of hours he was supposed to work. The crux of the issue is whether the officer had to work through lunch on a regular basis.

While the officer's name has been stated in conversation at City Hall and elsewhere as the matter was growing into a public discussion last week, Haywood refrained from naming the policeman.

"I do not want to make any comment at this time because I don't want to make any statement about someone until I know all the facts," Haywood said during a telephone interview Thursday.

That interview implies that Haywood's investigation might not include questions arising from the Police Advisory Board's discussion when Police Chaplain Shaun Grant, an associate pastor at First Assembly of God, 1191 West Ellington Parkway.

The police board recommended Grant to succeed a policewoman who resigned to care for her ailing mother. The city manager has declined to hire Grant, placing his application "on hold" since he's realized three councilmen indicated a preference for someone with more police experience and police academy training.

"I'm not getting involved in the hiring of the Police Department," Stewart said after the Nov. 10 meeting of the Council when she was asked to elaborate. "The Council needs to stay out of that."

The city manager is hired and retained by the Council, according to the City Charter that also assigns to that official the responsibility of hiring, firing, promoting and, ultimately, paying city employees.

Councilmen routinely contact Fuller on city business. An Oct. 23 report here erroneously said Fuller polled councilmen about Grant. After the Nov. 10 Council meeting, Fuller said he doesn't have to poll the Council on issues because he is approached by councilmen.

"I can never recall polling the Council," Fuller said after the Nov. 10 meeting. "They come to me with concerns. I work for the council.

"It's very seldom that there's two at a time," he said, explaining that it's "usually after a meeting" in City Hall.

Still, the question remains for Haywood. Had councilmen spoke privately about a police personnel matter?

The city attorney illustrated the issue of an appearance of conflict by saying that one councilman might take another "aside in private," and they "may be talking about the stock market, but if it's about public business, then it's only to be in public."

It was one of several points raised by Stewart after Mayor Barbara Woods opened the meeting to any other topic as scheduled business was concluded.

In an apparent reference to Grant, Stewart said, "I've done some things with him on the Foster Care Board and feel he will do a great job."

Furthermore, Stewart said she felt that some city business had been conducted out of the public's view, and it was about an officer, his time sheet and the radio log. It's the allegation that an employee was "claiming to be working for more hours" than what the police dispatcher's log apparently shows when compared to a time card.

Stewart called for a stop to practices of councilmen taking maters to Fuller when they ought to be handled during a public meeting.

"I don't want the city run by Mr. Fuller and a couple of councilmen," Stewart said.

Councilman Ronald McRady agreed.

"City Hall needs to stay out of the Police Department," McRady said. "We need to have the city attorney look at it, but if he can't, we need to look at it."

As McRady indicated that Haywood should question Fuller, Haywood said he was concerned by the accusations about an employee. The officer was not at the meeting, but there were a number of police there.

Officer John Christmas was asked after the meeting about information obtained from Fuller before Tuesday night's meeting - that officers don't have duty-free dinner or supper time. Christmas confirmed that the police personnel manual addresses the issue, saying that if duty calls, the meal is left. Routinely shifting time for lunch or dinner to the end of the shift is contrary to policy, Christmas said. Fuller has said that practice may happen, but to his knowledge no employee is working less than what they're paid.

Police Chief Chuck Forbis confirmed he's aware of the allegations and that records have been gathered for examination.

"I'm not going to comment on that," Forbis said after the meeting. "I know Bill Haywood said he'd look into it. I won't comment until he gets his information."

Stewart said the records are public and available for comparison. The records to be examined would be for January through April.

Public discussion of the police personnel issue prompted McRady to raise another issue. He wants to do something about nepotism.

"Do you have a problem with that Mr. Davis?" McRady asked Councilman Hershel Davis.

Councilman Odie Whitehead Jr. asked, "What's it about?"

McRady shot back: "You don't have to be a blind man to know what's going on."

At that point, the mayor announced it was time for the Council to hear comments from the public. They weren't on personnel issues.

After the meeting, Davis was asked what McRady was talking about. Davis said his son, Danny, had been employed by a summer youth work program. It's funded by the federal government. More than a dozen youngsters participated.

"It's to hire people who didn't have a job" and were young enough for the program, Davis said, reporting his son's employment "is finishing up. He had only so many hours to work.

"If you want to get into nepotism," Davis continued, "then there's probably a lot..."

He mentioned relationships such as nephews, aunts and uncles.

"I don't know" how many, he said. "That's opening a can of worms. You don't know how many will crawl out."

Other developments involving city employees include the dogcatcher's position that technically remains open.

"Willard Cates used to fill in for Neill (Owens, the former dogcatcher,)" Fuller said of times when Owens was on vacation or unavailable for other reasons.

Owens resigned after confessing to taking a dog home so he could sell it, records show.

Cates applied for the job, Fuller said, "And there's a trial period to be sure he's right for the job. I judge his performance by the number of complaints I get. So far there have been zero."

There were 16 applicants for the position, Fuller said. None had experience as an animal control officer, he said.

Fuller anticipates making a decision on whether to keep Cates "probably this week, next week for sure," the city manager said.

As for police employment, two jobs are open now.

"Really, everything is still on hold," Fuller said.

Grant applied for the position left open by Officer Jennifer McDonald. Since then, Officer Jackie Sands has submitted a letter of resignation to leave Thursday. He's accepted a job with the Maury County Sheriff's Department.

Grant hasn't been hired by Lewisburg because Fuller hasn't said "yes or no" so that the concerns raised by councilmen could be explored.

The city manager said no decision had been made because he "wanted to address concerns," Fuller said. That includes "getting the best bang for the buck."

He wants to do what's right: "That we're finding the best qualified candidate," Fuller said. "Almost any employer wants, especially this day and time, wants to be sure they get the best candidate."

The financial issue is whether a prospective police officer can be found who already has police academy training.

"Really," Fuller said, "everything is still on hold, including vacancy left by Sands."