Vidalia city employees meet with mayor, aldermen to review their rights in respect to new administration

Published 10:42 am Wednesday, June 22, 2016

VIDALIA — A Vidalia alderman hosted Wednesday a meeting to walk city employees through the employee handbook so they could “know their rights” in the face of a changing city administration.

Alderman Tron McCoy said he asked for the meeting after learning that Mayor-elect Buz Craft had met with city employees and told some of them — approximately 20 — they would no longer be working for the city after the July 1 change in administrations.

“This is a man who has not been sworn in and is having individual meetings at City Hall, saying, ‘You will not have a job,’ McCoy said after the meeting.

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That’s why McCoy wanted to meet with employees Wednesday, he said, not to embarrass the future mayor but because he thinks “everybody should at least know in the minimum amount what the government has assured you of.”

“In my time on the board, we have never seen wholesale terminations or mass unemployment because of a change in administration.”

While Mayor Hyram Copeland opened the meeting, and Aldermen Mo Saunders and Ricky Knapp briefly addressed those present, thanking them for their service to the city, but McCoy led most of the proceedings from the lectern.

Reading through the employee policy manual, McCoy told the nearly complete city workforce present that the manual recognizes three types of employment terminations — resignation, dismissal and layoffs.

“Dismissal is involuntary termination, and is based on substandard performance or misconduct,” he said, noting that the dismissal policy says department heads will counsel employees about deficiencies, give them a plan for improvement and a timeline for it to meet those goals.

“Anybody who has been dismissed at this point has not been evaluated by a department head or the new administration at this point, so it does not apply,” McCoy said.

He likewise noted that the handbook says the departmental oversight committee has to concur with the firing.

“With involuntary termination, when it occurs, a notice is prepared and concurred with the mayor and board of aldermen, and all five of us have got to be on board with getting the notice,” he said. “Then all of us notify the employee that they are going to be terminated.”

The board of aldermen also has to approve the creation of new positions, he said.

The policy manual “was crafted so that the hiring and firing wasn’t on the back of one person,” McCoy said.

Alderman Ricky Knapp, who will leave office June 30, said he’s studied the issue and the Lawrson Act — the legislation that acts as the city charter — comes into play. The duties of the mayor in the Lawrson act include, “to appoint and remove employees, other than the employees of a police department with an elected chief of police,” Knapp said.

“This is the way we have operated for the last 24 years,” he said.

“The only experience I have with the employee handbook is 20 years ago, for somebody who thought he was wrongly fired.”

Knapp said the handbooks include a grievance policy employees can follow if they feel they have been wrongly terminated, and told them he encouraged them to use it if that’s how they feel.

McCoy said he believes the handbook supersedes the Lawrson act, because — while the handbook was crafted with the legislation in mind — it was written and adopted especially for Vidalia.

The handbook was adopted In October 1992, and hasn’t been amended since. Incoming City Manager Bill Murray was on the board of aldermen at the time it was adopted.

Alderwoman-elect Sabrina Doré was also at the meeting, and said she applauds McCoy for what he did.

“I wish the board of aldermen had been involved in these decisions, but we have not been involved in any decision that was made,” she said.

Doré said she spoke with a representative of the Department of Justice after the meeting Wednesday, and was told that Vidalia strictly adheres to the Lawrson Act without any active charters that can supersede it.

“(The DOJ) told me it is up to (Craft) which one he wants to follow,” Doré said.

The alderwoman-elect said her preference would be to follow the handbook.

“I wish we did give these people who worked in Vidalia all these years the opportunity to remain in their positions and keep all their years of experience in place as we make the transition,” she said. “I think the right thing is to monitor them and speak with them and find out who they are before we dismiss them.”

McCoy said he doesn’t “expect (his) life to get any easier for bringing this forward.”

Craft was at the meeting, and said he felt like McCoy had stepped outside his authority as an alderman by leading the meeting.

While he declined to discuss personnel changes, Craft said he was letting some employees go but also creating some positions. Craft said he would announce those changes when he takes office.

“Next Friday, I will assume the office with all the responsibilities I will have,” he said.