MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

July 18, 2013

City groundskeeper's dismissal voided

Merit Board cites his being off duty during alleged attack on wife

— Muskogee Merit Board members reversed an administrative decision to terminate a parks maintenance worker who allegedly tried to strangle his wife.

Instead, the three-member panel imposed a 30-day suspension without pay, granting Brian Roetto credit for the 15 work days that have elapsed since his termination June 25.

Merit Board Chairman Stan Hiner said the decision was difficult to make because the alleged conduct occurred while Roetto was off duty.

“It was a difficult case in my opinion,” Hiner said after the panel deliberated about an hour before voting to modify City Manager Greg Buckley’s termination decision. “Off-duty conduct is never easy. That aspect just made it more difficult.”

Roetto, who described the circumstances leading up to his termination as a nightmare, expressed satisfaction with the ruling. He also said he understood the gravity of the alleged conduct, which he said was an isolated incident that never would have occurred if he and his wife had not been intoxicated.

“I am happy with the overall outcome — I think it’s fair,” said Roetto, whose discipline was based on violations of two employee work rules. “I understand the severity of the alleged actions and know it was a hard case to decide.”

Michael Bates, the city’s labor relations director, argued that it should make no difference whether the alleged conduct occurred on- or off-duty because it violated a public trust. The conduct alleged, Bates said, rose to a level that could embarrass or discredit the city and violates reasonable expectations of employee behavior.

Evidence presented during the five-hour proceeding Wednesday showed that Roetto’s problems began June 15, when he called emergency dispatchers. In a recording of the 911 call initiated by Roetto, he told dispatchers, “I believe I just tried to kill my wife.”

Roetto told board members that he remembered few details about the events that led to his arrest, the filing of a misdemeanor charge dismissed nine days later by prosecutors, and his termination. His memory lapse, Roetto said, occurred as a result of his drinking too much.

“This is like waking up to a nightmare every day to learn about what I allegedly had done,” Roetto said, emphasizing that the alleged conduct was an isolated event and that he never had been reprimanded during his five years as a city employee. “In my right mind, I would never do that.”

Roetto and Dustin Williams, the president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2465, also argued there was no physical evidence to support allegations that he attempted to strangle his wife. Their assertion was confirmed by the arresting officer who responded to Roetto’s 911 call.

Officer Alan Bemo said he never saw Roetto’s wife the night of the incident that prompted the disciplinary action. But he cited the observations of another officer, who said he could see no evidence of an attempted strangulation.

During his summation of the case, Bates tried to distinguish the difference between public- and private-sector employment when disciplining an employee for off-duty conduct. Bates argued — and other city administrators testified — that public-sector employees should be held to higher standards because of the issue of public trust.

“All of our employees interface with the public — aside from bringing embarrassment or discredit to the city, there is that interface,” Parks Superintendent Rick Ewing said. “When there is a violent crime, we have to be concerned for the safety of our citizens.”

Roetto, who is in charge of mowing and maintaining city parks, recreational and community centers and the medians on some streets, said he has very little contact with the public.

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

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