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OV to reexamine employee grievance board

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Posted: Tuesday, August 24, 2004 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:48 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Aug. 18, 2004 - Oro Valley is re-examining its employee grievance procedure in response to concerns that the current make up the Grievance Review Board may allow room for decisions to be influenced.

There is no uniform way to handle employee concerns in Arizona, according to Oro Valley Human Resources Director Jeff Grant, and Oro Valley has operated with "the objective of providing a grievance process that is viewed as providing a fair resolution to employee concerns," he said.

But the most recent decision reached by the board raised questions about the fairness of the current procedure.

On Sept. 30 of last year, Sgt. James Bloomfield, a 14-year veteran of the Oro Valley Police Department, was fired after an internal investigation reported he lied to his supervisors regarding an affair he had with another officer's girlfriend.

In October, Bloomfield appealed to the GRB, which had the power to uphold the firing, reinstate him to his position, or reinstate him with lesser discipline.

The firing was upheld by the GRB on April 8 by a 3 to 2 vote, with the three town employee members voting to fire Bloomfield and the two citizen members voting against it.

The decision raised questions as to whether employee members of that board may have been pressured by fellow employees to side with the town's ruling.

Last month, Pima County Superior Court Judge Jane L. Eikleberry affirmed the GRB's decision and rejected Bloomfield's claim the decision was "illegal, arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and … not supported by substantial evidence."

Bloomfield's attorney, Michael Storie, said it has not yet been decided whether they will appeal the decision.

The Grievance Review Board was created July 1, 1993 and the format has remained largely unchanged since then, according to Grant. It is comprised of two appointed community members and three town employees, elected by their peers. Currently those members are Pima Community College Human Resources Director Jack ReDavid, the board's chairman, Ethel Rocco, Assistant Town Clerk Roxana Garrity, Oro Valley crime analyst Lorinda Navarro, and town senior civil engineer Steve Faaborg.

The format came about after studying how the process was handled in other municipalities throughout the state and nation, Grant said, and borrowing different elements the town council and staff at the time thought would work for Oro Valley.

Before that, the town manager was solely in charge of handling complaints.

The current grievance process uses the GRB as the last step in any employee grievance issue.

Supervisors, department heads, and the town manager first attempt to reach a decision deemed fair by all parties by determining the facts involved and whether policy was followed.

"As in most grievance processes, the objective of the Oro Valley process was not simply to find anyone right or wrong, but to resolve the issue at the earliest point in the process and in the fairest manner pursuant to town policies," Grant told the council at the Aug. 4 regular meeting.

Grant said only five grievances have been heard by the GRB since it began and of those, one was determined by the board not to be a grievable issue. The other four were heard in entirety, with the board upholding the town's action in each.

The Grievance Review Board most recently was studied by the council at a Dec. 1 study session, although no changes were made to the make up of the board.

Councilmember Helen Dankwerth brought the issue of whether the format of the board should be changed to the mayor, asking that discussion of the matter be placed on the Aug. 4 agenda.

She said she did so on behalf of all the employees in the town, not just those in the police department.

In a subsequent telephone interview, when asked about the timing of the issue, she said how the grievance board operates had been an issue for her throughout her campaign.

She said she went to members of the Oro Valley Police Department and said to them, "Tell me about your issues," and the grievance board came up again and again. Dankwerth said the issue is being brought up now as a way of fulfilling a campaign promise to address it.

However, Dankwerth said she does not have her mind made up as to what, if anything, should be changed about the current make up of the board.

Municipalities across the nation are taking different approaches to resolving employee problems, she said.

At the Aug. 4 council meeting she said she would like to see changes made as early as January, to allow the current staff members to finish out their terms. She also said she would like the board to be opened up to more people in the community with experience in the labor and negotiations field.

Navarro, who has been an employee GRB member for three years, spoke at the Aug. 4 council meeting, and said the current make up of the grievance review board is working as it is.

She said the issue raised "by a small faction in the police department" is that the town employee members of the board may be influenced by their coworkers to vote a particular way.

"I want to assure you, none of us are," she said.

She said if she were to have a grievance, she would prefer to have it heard by, "someone who fully understands me in my workplace."

Faaborg, another member of the GRB, not present at the council meeting, said he thinks the town's policy on employee grievances is good overall, although he does not see anything wrong with taking a look at it for adjustments.

The idea that the employee members are somehow influenced to take the side of the town in grievance matters, however, is something he has not seen as an issue.

"I am a little offended," Faaborg said. "I certainly have never felt anything like that."

But Dankwerth said this is in no way meant to offend the board members, who she said have done "a remarkable job" serving the town.

She said she wants to "remove any perception of a political process and political influence" that might be involved in the current grievance resolving procedure.

She said she also wants to alleviate any stress that might be felt by individuals serving on the board.

Faaborg said the process can be frustrating.

"There have been a couple of grievances that go on and on. It's hard to get everyone together," he said. "If we could find a way to pace things better, that would be good."

But, he points out, policy changes have been made as problems arise that need to be addressed. For example, he said during the Bloomfield hearing, the process was started with the understanding a secret, paper ballot vote would be taken, and then that was changed to make the board vote in open. Faaborg said he did not like that the process was modified "midstream," but since then, the policy has been altered to make all GRB votes open.

He said it is difficult when lawyers get involved in a step that should be handled by town employees. He said the GRB is the step after management and before legal action, to see if the matter can be resolved.

And there is a stress factor, he said, juggling the responsibilities of the job and personal life with the added task of serving on the board.

"I chose to run for this," Faaborg, who also has been on the board for three years, said. "I think it's necessary. The employees need a voice in it."

But Storie said the proof that the process should be changed is in the results.

"There hasn't been a finding for an appeal in favor of an employee since the board began," he said. "What does that tell you? It tells you it's skewed against the employee."

Storie said no matter what an employee may tell you, they are reluctant to find against the decisions of their superiors.

"They have to stand up there in front of their boss and say 'you are wrong.'"

He pointed specifically to the Bloomfield case, where the three employees upheld their supervisor's decision and the two citizens voted against it.

Employee's stating they can vote impartially regardless of the circumstances is "a lofty idea," according to Storie, however "the truth is, they haven't done it," he said.

Tucson Police Officers Association President Sgt. Rich Anemone attended all five days of the Bloomfield grievance hearing and also is a board member of the Arizona Conference of Police and Sheriffs, a group of more than 60 Arizona police unions representing a majority of the state's law enforcement officers.

He said Oro Valley would be better off using only citizens to resolve employee concerns.

"Any time city employees are making decisions about the future of other employees it leads to problems," he said. "You're there with coworkers judging other coworkers, often under the gun of your supervisor."

Anemone has been an officer in Tucson since 1990, and said the city of Tucson always has had an all-citizen civil service committee handling employee grievances. He said he believes the group is "impartial."

A motion to further study the grievance policies of the town at a future study session was unanimously passed by the council at the Aug. 4 regular meeting.

Councilmember Barry Gillaspie said there "are lots of options we can consider" regarding the make up of the board and whether it is time for Oro Valley to make some changes to its policies.

As examples of how other cities are handling the grievance process, he suggested dual commissions could be formed so that employees were not hearing cases that could result in the firing of another employee. Or the numbers could be changed so that employees still would be represented on the board, but may not comprise the majority.

Dankwerth said she was particularly interested in the idea of two or more commissions to hear different types of grievances.

Gillaspie said it is important the council look at all the options objectively.

"We don't want to create a situation where people have to take sides," he said.

Mayor Paul Loomis said the current process is "very much driven by the employees" and since they know the jobs better than anyone else, it is their opportunity to speak.

He said if another make up is proposed, how members are chosen will be important if the council's goal is to remove any appearance of political influence.

Vice Mayor Paula Abbott said she does not see any harm in discussing the issue at a study session and said the process could be changed or could be kept as is after all is said and done.

"The council does not believe the GRB is influenced by other staff members," she said. "It's a healthy check and balance the way I look at it."

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