Monroe County commissioners put off changes to personnel policy after councilors tweak salary ordinance

On Wednesday morning, a vote on changes to Monroe County’s personnel policy got postponed by the board of commissioners.

Several of the proposed changes to the policy had a certain routine quality.

One was the conversion of sick time to personal benefit time. That conversion meant deleting requirements for physician statements after three days. A third revision changed bereavement time from five days to three days.

Also apparently uncontroversial, at least for the commissioners, was another change that added a section called “Competent and Inclusive Workforce.”

The section reads in part, “[A]ll elected officials and full time employees will be required to participate in [cultural sensitivity training, implicit bias training] approved by the Board of Commissioners, or the Prosecutor, or the Board of Judges.”

But on Tuesday, the night before, when the county council took its vote on the 2021 budget, the seven-member fiscal body took a step that affected the commissioners’ decision. The council uncoupled the salary ordinances—for elected officials and county employees alike—from any changes the commissioners might make to the personnel policy.

Salary ordinances are approved annually, setting the amount of compensation for anyone who works for the county.

One sentence in the salary ordinances establishes a link between getting paid and compliance with the personnel policy: “All payments made pursuant to this ordinance are contingent upon the strict compliance with and adherence to the Monroe County personnel policy handbook.”

According to county attorney Margie Rice, that wording, which ties the salary ordinances to the personnel policy, has been included “for decades.”

But on Tuesday night, the county council unanimously agreed to amend the sentence, to freeze the reference to the personnel policy at a particular time. The amended sentence reads: “All payments made pursuant to this ordinance are contingent upon the strict compliance with and adherence to the Monroe County personnel policy handbook as it exists on October 20, 2020.”

The concerns of the councilors included a worry about the ability of a personnel policy that is approved by some elected officials to impose requirements on other electeds. Another concern was the idea that they would be signing off on a salary ordinance that was tied to a personnel policy that had features as yet unknown to them. And county councilors questioned why they did not also have a role in determining the content of the personnel policy.

On Wednesday, county attorney Jeff Cockerill advised commissioners to postpone voting in light of the county council’s action.

President of the board of commissioners, Julie Thomas, called the council’s action “concerning.”

About the councilor’s amendments to the salary ordinances, commissioner Lee Jones said, “It was a little startling. We’d kind of been under the impression that there was support for this.”

Cockerill told the three commissioners that the legal department had some questions about what would happen if the revisions to the personnel policy were approved with the salary ordinance amendments made by the county council.

By the following week, Cockerill said, he thought he could get a “clean and clear answer” to those questions.

It was on Monday, for the first reading of the salary ordinances, when councilor Marty Hawk raised the questions about the personnel policy. Those questions eventually led to the amendment of the salary ordinances the following night.

Hawk said, “I do continue to have questions about the personnel policy. …Because the way it is, we are signing off that we’re going to agree to whatever that personnel policy says.” She added, “And I’m not sure that we have equal input into what it says.”

Councilor Geoff McKim agreed with Hawk, saying, “We are not signatories of the personnel policy. That’s the commissioners and the prosecutor and the board of judges.”

Hawk followed up: “As elected officials, we should not be told by another group of elected officials what they expect us to do. I mean, we are guided by what the state tells us what to do, and that we must do.” She added, “One elected official cannot require another elected official, anything any more than what the required statutory duties are.”

County attorney Margie Rice wondered why this concern was arising this year. She told the councilors: “This is language that has been in your salary ordinance for decades. And it’s been recommended by
[Waggoner, Irwin, Scheele & Associates].

WIS is the human resources management firm the county uses as a consultant. The recommendation from WIS, Rice said, is that “you put in your salary ordinance, language that says all payments made pursuant to the salary ordinance are contingent upon full compliance with the personnel policy.”

Rice gave an example where it would be useful to have the wording in the salary ordinance to give it some “teeth.” She sketched a scenario with a “rogue elected official” who decides they’re not going to make their employees fill out a timesheet’ or abide by the sick leave policy or the FMLA policy or some other policy. Rice said, “The way that you get that rogue elected official’s attention to follow the rules is to have this language in your salary ordinance.”

Hawk responded by saying, “I just think that we have to recognize we’re all duly elected, equally elected.” She added, “And it appears that there’s been a movement toward requiring elected officials to do this or that or some other thing coming out of the commissioner’s office. And I just think it’s inappropriate.”

McKim pointed out that the personnel policy distinguishes between elected officials and employees. He said, “I think the personnel policy is quite clear about not attempting to apply rules that apply to employees to elected officials as well, who are by definition, not employees for most purposes in the personnel policy.”

Even if Hawk doesn’t like the way the personnel policy expresses the difference, McKim said, he thinks elected officials are not subject to the vast majority of the requirements of the personnel policy.

President of the county council, Eric Spoonmore asked Rice why the county council did not have any input on the personnel policy—along with the county commissioners, the prosecutor, and the board of judges.

Rice gave a response based on the idea that the county commissioners are the executive branch and the county council exercises a fiscal check on the executive. As an example, Rice gave training. If there is some training the commissioners want to see county employees undergo, and the county council doesn’t support the training, the way the council can participate in the decision is by not funding the training. “You do, in fact, have a voice. It’s just not a direct voice,” Rice concluded.

Spoonmore said it might be worth posing the question to WIS: What does WIS think the county council’s involvement should be with the personnel policy?

Hawk suggested that in addition to WIS, the county council should check with the Association of Indiana Counties for advice on the topic.

The county commissioners will have the revisions to the personnel policy back on its Wednesday Oct. 28 meeting agenda.