MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

March 10, 2013

Communications rule changes await council vote

They would allow more contact between city execs, councilors

— City councilors are expected to approve on Monday policy changes that would clarify and loosen restrictions on communications between elected officials and city employees.

The proposed policy changes were requested by city councilors who had asked for guidance regarding a statement adopted in 2009, charter provisions and ordinances that restrict communications.

Muskogee’s charter and city ordinances require elected officials to deal with city employees through the city manager’s office. Those provisions have been construed to mean that no individual councilor “should direct the staff to provide information, prepare documents or ... reports.”

City Attorney Roy Tucker said some city councilors had expressed fears about unwittingly breaching the prohibitions during informal public encounters. The amended provisions attempt to resolve those concerns by providing clearer guidelines.

The amendments, which won the unanimous support of councilors during the Public Works Committee meeting Tuesday, set out clear examples of the types of discussion allowed and prohibited.

The revised policy would allow councilors to request information from department heads if the “answer ... is immediately ascertainable with investigation or research.” It would prohibit councilors from providing “directions or orders to any city employee, other than council appointees, related to the employee’s job or duties. It also prohibits employees from discussing with elected officials anything that would “circumvent the authority of any supervisor, department head or city manager.”

“We have loosened the provisions by allowing direct contact with department heads when the city manager is unavailable,” Tucker said as he explained the proposed changes to city councilors. “The point is not to be obstructive, but to protect the charter provisions and you from liability with regard to the day-to-day operations of the of the city.”

City Manager Greg Buckley said restrictions on communications between elected officials and city staffers also balance the competing interests of time and priorities.

“It’s good that council desires to be informed so you can set policies,” Buckley said about the communications. “But sometimes staff feels intimidated — not that council is trying to be that way — because of the dynamics of the relationship.”

Ward II Councilor Dan Hall said he wanted clarification and further guidance because he feared he might cross the line by having a casual conversation with — or complimenting — city workers. Buckley said a conversation of that type would be allowed and welcomed under the proposed policy.

The proposed policy, however, expressly prohibits councilors from engaging “in any manner with a city employee any matter involving collective bargaining, union membership or grievance.” Tucker said the provision conforms with an ordinance that bars discussion regarding contract negotiations and grievances.

Tucker defended the prohibition, which could be construed in terms broader than the language in the ordinance. He said he was unable to think of any collective bargaining issue that has no connection to contract negotiations or grievances.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a series of rulings over several years, “has made clear that public employees do not surrender all their First Amendment rights by reason of their employment. Rather, the First Amendment protects a public employee’s right, in certain circumstances, to speak as a citizen addressing matters of public concern.”

Dustin Williams, the president of the local union that represents the city’s non-uniform employees, said he has trouble accepting what he considers a double standard. Although Buckley, as the city’s top administrator, has unfettered access to elected officials to discuss labor issues or any other topic, employee communications are limited to supervisors, department heads and the city manager.

“The city sees me as a union guy, even though I may be off the clock, so I can’t go to a city councilor to discuss anything about collective bargaining under this policy,” Williams said. “Administrators have an open door to discuss these same things with city councilors during executive sessions, but we are not allowed to present our positions. To me, that is kind of unfair — we are citizens before we are employees.”

Tucker said the charter and ordinance are designed to move contract negotiations and grievances forward in an orderly fashion. But he agrees public employees have a right to speak as a public citizen on matters of public concern.

“I have no problem with that,” he said. “There is no intent here to stifle anybody’s rights to speak as a public citizen.”

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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