Commonwealth Journal

July 25, 2013

Somerset City Councilors: It’s OK for employees to talk to us

Commonwealth Journal

Somerset — Somerset City Councilors made it clear with a resolution this week that city employees are welcome to talk to them at any time.

Councilor John Ricky Minton during Monday’s Somerset City Council meeting said he had concerns after he’d spoken to several city employees within the last two weeks.

“They’re like ‘Hey I shouldn’t be seen talking to someone on the council. I’ve been told that I could lose my job,” said Minton.  “... I’ve heard that, and I’ve heard it under other administrations.”

Minton, when reached by phone on Thursday, said he’d run into city employees around town, at local stores, and he said they were hesitant to speak to him and other councilors because they’d been discouraged not to.

“They’re all looking over their shoulder,” said Minton on Thursday. “They have been told not to be talking to a councilor or they could lose their job.”

Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler during Monday’s meeting denied such a statement came from his office.

“That has never came from me, because I have encouraged people to come to me,” said Girdler. “I encourage them to tell the council because I’m only one person.”

Councilor Jerry Wheeldon suggested that the perception that city employees are not to approach councilors may have begun in prior administrations, but he noted he hadn’t heard of that lately.

“No, it’s been said lately,” Minton replied. “I’m not saying it came from the Mayor, but maybe department heads or supervisors.”

Minton said he’d discussed the issue with Girdler before.

“Any employee of the city, if they want to talk to a council member, they have the right to,” said Minton during the meeting. “I don’t think they should have to be afraid to talk to their council person.

“They work for the city, we’re apart of the city, and I’d like to see an end put to this,” Minton added.

Councilor Jim Rutherford said he was told “point blank” not to go to certain councilors’ homes while he served as an officer with the city.

“You were encouraged to stay away from certain people,” said Rutherford.

Rutherford said he’d like those ideas to change.

“I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable talking to me,” Rutherford said.

Minton asked that the council pass a resolution that would encourage any city employee to speak to their councilors without fear of losing their jobs.

“Make it clear they’re not going to be retaliated against if they’re seen talking to somebody,” said Minton.

Several councilors stated that they would be glad to speak to any employees, as long as it wasn’t over issues such as personnel, discipline, real estate matters, or human resource concerns such as hours worked.

“We don’t have the authority to be involved in personnel issues,” said Councilor Tom Eastham, who noted he’d been contacted about those issues before. “They still should be able to communicate anything outside of that to anyone they want to communicate to.”

Minton, on Thursday, said he’d never been contacted by a city employee over personnel issues.

Those issues, the councilors agreed, are best presented to Girdler himself, or Somerset City Attorney Carrie Wiese.

“I know there’s some things ... that shouldn’t be spoken out loud,” said Rutherford. “ ... We all understand that and I don’t think anybody’s going to be gossiping about it, but just casual conversation about their day or how their work’s going, they should feel free to do that.”

But other issues, such as equipment issues, questions about upgrades and new purchases, and more, would be appropriate for the council, said Rutherford.

“We can help them at least ... allocate money to fix the problem,” said Rutherford.

Councilor Jerry Burnett said he’d visited Somerset-Pulaski County EMS and the Somerset Fire Department recently, and he said everyone seemed very welcoming.

“Making yourself seen around these areas, these employees are glad to see you,” said Burnett.

Councilor Jimmy Eastham agreed.

“We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t know something that was going on in all these departments,” said Jimmy Eastham.

The council voted unanimously to pass the resolution encouraging city employees to contact their councilors — and to not feel as if they shouldn’t have a casual conversation with the councilors.

“This is America,” said Minton during the meeting. “We’re not building nuclear bombs here or something we need to keep secret.”