Mayor taken to task on “childish” behavior over his attempt to sway committee
By Brandi Makuski
The city’s personnel committee has turned down proposed changes to a policy they believe would make it harder to fire below-average city workers.
The proposed change was a small one, rewording one part of a sentence within the city’s employee discipline policy in an effort to make the process more clear, according to Mayor Mike Wiza, who proposed the change.
“I want to make sure all the employees feel like they can be treated fairly, and that there is some guidance as to what ‘fair’ means, because it’s going to mean something different to you than it does to me,” Wiza told the personnel committee.
Current policy outlines disciplinary procedures for below-average employees and includes the phrase “fair and objective” when applying any disciplinary actions for non-probationary employees, up to and including termination.
But according to Wiza, as well City Attorney Andrew Beveridge, the word “objective” is too vague and open to individual interpretation.
The suggested language would read, “fairly and without discrimination of the employee”.
But after speaking with department heads and employees, members of the personnel committee were largely unmoved, saying discrimination was already against the law, and city policy already prohibited arbitrary discipline. The change, some members said, had potential to create additional legal problems for the city.
The committee also debated with the mayor over whether the proposed change offered a “just cause” protection for employees who could no longer collectively bargain for greater protections following Act 10. The city removed “just cause” from its policy in 2011.
“I spoke with [department] directors,” said Alderman Jeremy Slowinski. “I still have the feeling of…why change something that is not broken?”
Council President Mike Phillips said he received similar feedback from city employees and directors, saying the change would create an “undue burden” on department heads when it came to employee discipline.
“When I talked to the workers, they want the bad apples to get out of there, too,” Phillips said. “They don’t want them hanging around. I want to lean more towards ‘at will’ than ‘just cause’, and by changing this language we’re moving in the wrong direction.”
Phillips was referring to the “at-will” designation, which means a non-probationary employee can be fired for any reason not protected by law. A “just cause” status requires meeting several standards during the disciplinary process including proof of equal treatment, documentation of consistent poor performance and a list of standards proving the discipline was necessary and fair.
Ald. Tony Patton said he spoke with city employees who said they supported the change.
“Several employees talked to me about wanting the ‘just cause’ in there so they feel they’re protected,” Patton said.
Councilwoman Heidi Oberstadt said she also received positive feedback from employees about the change.
“I talked to individuals who would be affected by this as employees, and I think this is going to make everybody happy,” said Oberstadt. “I would rather err on the side of clear language, and this is really a compromise.”
But some on the committee questioned the reason behind the change, and after investigating the issue said they believed the change was designed to benefit only a small section of employees, and was not in the best interest of taxpayers.
“I spoke with management and employees on this issue…it’s pretty clear to me there’s a handful of streets employees [who] are led by AFSCME and the Local 309 president,” said Councilwoman Denise Mrozek. “The request to add the additional language we’re looking at is to satisfy those individuals, and its president, and is not representative of all city employees or constituents.”
Mrozek went on to say the change would open additional avenues for interpretation and arguing points, making it more difficult for a manager to do their job.
“I can tell you what I have heard from speaking with both employees and management: [despite] a lot of their fear with the passing of Act 10, there’s actually been improvement in the workplace,” she said. “It’s a more relaxed atmosphere with more communication and dialogue between employees and management. So, based on doing my research, it’s really clear we’re trying to fix something that isn’t broke.”
But Wiza continued to push for the change, arguing first that “just because it isn’t broke, doesn’t mean we can’t improve”, then arguing the the system was broke.
“I need this language in here because it has happened, it is broke,” Wiza said, also noting the attorney who represented the city in labor negotiations had approved the new language.
The mayor also repeatedly has cited a single example of what he considered an unfair dismissal in 2013, when Terry Reith, a former assistant streets superintendent, was abruptly fired in January following an email he sent to former Mayor Andrew Halverson. No official reason behind Reith’s termination has been publicly disclosed, but he later sued the city and was awarded $60,000.
At the time, Wiza was an alderman and asked for an investigation on the matter.
“To say that this wasn’t broke is inaccurate,” Wiza said on Monday. “I provided this committee with an instance (referring to Reith) where it was broke, and it cost the city $60,000 dollars. This came from me, this didn’t come from AFSCME. This was my idea to put this language in here to prevent incidents like that from ever happening again.”
A frustrated Wiza also asked “anyone who can answer my question” to cite specific examples of how many problems the “just cause” standard has created for the city.
Lisa Jakusz, director of human resources for the city, said before Act 10, department managers had difficulty firing troublesome employees. The removal of “just cause” from policy language, she said, has provided a better work environment.
“The employees are saying, ‘We got rid of some of the bad apples- why did it have to take so long?’,” Jakusz said. “Because [under Act 10] it was a high standard. I don’t think it’s a broken system.”
She also said it’s never an easy task to fire an employee, but there are already several protections- including those from state and federal laws- in place to protect employees from being unjustly fired.
“It doesn’t come without many, many warnings,” Jakusz said of employee terminations. “It doesn’t come without trying to counsel that person and making them understand they are on thin ice and walking a thin line.”
Jakusz added she reached out to 27 surrounding municipalities and discovered 21 held an “at will” termination standard. Stevens Point’s policy current policy “falls in the middle”, she said.
Council members Shaun Morrow and Mary McComb said they approved of the change, with McComb saying in her own experience as a manager, she liked the “clarification” of the language.
Wiza again reiterated his belief the new language was a benefit for city employees.
“Whether or not you believe the system is broken…I firmly believe the language laying the out a little bit better, a little bit clearer, is going to benefit us in the future, as well as the employees,” he said.
Mrozek said she felt the mayor’s insistence was not appropriate.
“For everyone on this committee, and the alders, we need to remember we represent all constituents and not just a few people wanting to change a policy that already works,” she said. “Mayor, some of your conduct, when we basically disagree on this committee, some of your comments, they’re getting to be kind of childish when you’re acting like that; things are not always going to go our way, your way, the people in audience way, but you’re just giving this portrayal that’s kind of unprofessional when you act that way.”
“I’ll accept that,” was Wiza’s reply.
The committee voted 4-1 to deny the change in language.
The matter comes before the full city council on Monday, Dec. 21 at city hall. The 7 PM meeting is open to the public.