At Thursday night’s meeting, a majority of the County Board of Commissioners rebuffed a proposal to rethink the county’s grievance hearing process.
Commissioner Charles Rousseau asked his colleagues to reconsider the process that sees County Administrator Steve Rapson receive the initial complaint, determine whether it is a grievance based on pre-set guidelines, and adjudicates the final decision if it is not already settled.
“You can’t have the final arbiter, who would be in this instance the county administrator, hearing whether or not it can go forward and making the determination on the back end,” he said, adding that his proposal was to “breed and build in a higher degree of confidence in people that their issues are being fairly heard and adjudicated.”
Rousseau said he had not heard of any specific instances where there were accusations that the process had been unfair, but that he thought the optics could be better. He suggested Rapson and Human Resources Director Lewis Patterson could look into what would be the best setup, possibly even forming a grievance review board.
“You restore and maintain a high level of confidence if you don’t have the final arbiter on the front end.”
Commissioner Steve Brown agreed with Rousseau, saying he had talked with employees afraid of the current process.
“I’ve had employees approach me who have offered complaints and did not feel comfortable going through a system they felt was slanted heavily not in their favor and felt like their job could be in jeopardy if they did issue a complaint,” he said. “You can’t be the prosecutor and the judge. That doesn’t work out very well, and it doesn’t look good.”
Under current policy, the employee fills out a Grievance Form that goes to Rapson to determine if the issue may be grieved. The policy outlines five areas that may not be grieved: Issues pending or concluded by other procedures, work assignments not resulting in demotion or salary reduction, budget allocation and organization structure, adverse actions (which go through a separate process), or performance evaluations.
According to County Attorney Dennis Davenport, the process is objective because Rapson considers the grievance against those five areas under the assumption that everything the employee says is true, and the veracity of the claims would be determined later via an investigation that does not include the county administrator. Rapson’s judgement would then only come into play when the investigation is complete, if the matter has not already been settled.
Rapson clarified that hearing grievances is a very rare occurrence, with just an estimated 10 cases over the six years he has been on the job. He said only one of those was turned down, and the rejection was because it was regarding a performance evaluation.
While he said he understood the optics of the situation, he said of the grievance evaluation process, “This ain’t rocket science.”
He pushed back on assertions from Brown that he is involved in disciplinary decisions on the front end, saying that serious issues like harassment and bullying always go straight to human resources.
“I’m never ever, and I haven’t for six years, ever been involved in anything on the front end in a disciplinary manner and turned around and adjudicated it on the back end,” he said. “That is just a complete false statement, and for you to sit there and say that several times is just a bit much for me to sit here and listen to that.”
Commissioner Randy Ognio expressed a reluctance to make a change without a firm plan in place.
“I don’t think you can remove (Rapson) from the process until you have something to replace him.”
Commissioner Charles Oddo said he thought the system in place was working and saw no need to change it. He also thought that shifting the responsibility to lower management could come with its own set of challenges.
“If we were to replace this system, there would be other issues because somebody would not be happy with what happened, so you have to have confidence in people we have here,” he said. “If we didn’t have the right people in place, we might have to make changes.
“The process fits the people.”
An agitated Rousseau pushed back that he was not questioning the people doing the job and whether or not they were doing it well. He was questioning if the process itself was the best way to do it altogether, and making it an issue of supporting an individual person in the process was unfair.
“What frustrates me is you all continue to put this on personality. I am not dealing with personality, I am dealing with process, procedure, policy. You keep saying it’s working well and the people are doing a good job, and I didn’t say anything about the people doing a bad job,” he said. “It’s dangerous not to look at policy as just simply policy, not personality. When you introduce that, it infuriates me.”
Rousseau’s proposal failed 2-3, with Chairman Eric Maxwell, Oddo, and Ognio voting to maintain the status quo.