LaGrange council considering HR policy changes

Published 6:23 pm Thursday, April 20, 2023

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During the LaGrange City Council annual retreat, the council discussed potential updates to the city’s personnel policy.

City Manager Meg Kelsey said the human resources policy hasn’t had a major revamp in 10 years. Some policies have been updated as needed but there has not been an overall review of the personnel policy in around a decade.

City Attorney Jeff Todd said the city has used service through the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA), which are experts on labor law, to help update the city’s personnel policy.

Todd outlined several HR proposed changes, none of which were major changes but were needed due to changing local and federal laws and other modifications necessitated by recent events.



Two changes were made to the Equal Employment Opportunity section of the document to forbid discrimination based on genetic information and gender identity.

Todd said discrimination based on genetic information was not originally included, but it’s now forbidden by Title VII.

“We added gender identity not because of Title VII, but because it conforms to your anti-discrimination ordinance passed a few years ago,” Todd said.



The sexual harassment policy was updated to not allow supervisory employees to allow personal friendships or social relationships — on or off the job — to influence their treatment of subordinate employees.



Todd explained that the city’s discipline policies have to be different from private companies because due process is required for government employees.

“Many years ago, the courts determined that if a government employee has a right to expect continued employment unless they violate policy, that’s a property right,” Todd said. “Your right to continue in your job is a property right, and we’re the government, so we can’t take that from you without due process.”

Because of this, when discipline is handed down by department heads and employees want to appeal, it goes to a grievance appeals committee, which is made up of three individuals — the city manager and two department heads chosen by the city manager.

That gives the grievance committee the opportunity to either uphold or reverse the discipline. Notably, it does not allow the ability to increase the punishment if the committee or the city manager deems it to be too lenient.

Todd said because the courts have ruled that short suspensions don’t amount to a loss of property, employees don’t get an appeal beyond the grievance appeals committee unless they have been suspended for 10 days or more. If it goes beyond that, the city will hold a mini-trial where evidence can be provided by both sides before a final decision is made.

“Each side can have an attorney and put up sworn witnesses and evidence before the hearing officer,” Todd said.

The hearing officer then decides based on a preponderance of the evidence if the policy was broken and the punishment is either upheld or reversed. They don’t decide the level of punishment. If a lawsuit is filed, that starts a new process.

Todd said the city has been successful with employment lawsuits with this model because the courts see it as employees receiving due process.

The issue that has come up with the policy recently is that it allows a department head to give an employee a slap on the wrist and the grievance committee cannot issue a stiffer punishment.

Todd said the policy could be changed to give the grievance committee the ability to modify the punishment, but that could potentially dissuade employees from filing an appeal because they don’t want to be fired.

Another option would be to simply have the city manager sign off on all discipline matters.

Mayor Willie Edmondson suggested that would help staff discipline to be more transparent and consistent.

“We need to change this slapping of the hand and getting away with it,” Edmondson said.

Councilman Mark Mitchell said that at the minimum the city manager needs to be notified when discipline is issued.

“We were lacking information [with the Banning Mills incidents]. To me, that didn’t make sense. If you’re the boss, you need to at least be notified within 24 hours,” Mitchell said.

Kelsey said most of the department heads come to her before issuing discipline and ask her what she would do.

“Some of them come to me and say, ‘What would you do?’ and receive guidance from me, and we talk it through. Ultimately, I let them make that decision. That’s what I’m paying them to do,” Kelsey said.

“The problem isn’t the people who come to you,” said Councilman Nathan Gaskin. “[Former Police Chief Lou] Dekmar didn’t come to you and say there is a problem with Captain [Mike] Pheil.”

Pheil was accused of misconduct at the 2022 retreat. In the midst of that investigation, another was launched into allegations he exposed himself to a female subordinate at a police retreat on Nov. 11, 2020. He was employed with the department until March 2, 2023, when he resigned amid an investigation into the incident.



Currently, full-time employees are granted three days of funeral leave for the death of an immediate family member. This is based on an eight-hour day, which didn’t originally consider fire department employees who can work 24-hour shifts.

A potential update would modify the funeral leave policy to grant fire department personnel on a 24/48 shift one 24-hour shift off. Police personnel on 12-hour shifts would be granted funeral leave for up to two consecutive 12-hour shifts.



Current city policy prohibits employees from supervising immediate relatives. First cousins were added to the list of those who are prohibited from supervising each other.

Todd said there’s a proposed update to the employee fraternization policy so that the rules go both ways. Previously, the policy prohibited fraternization by supervisors with their subordinates. Now it’s forbidden whether they’re the supervisor or the supervisee.

If relationships change, then one would have to quit or change jobs.

“If two employees start dating and one of them supervises the other, one of them has to quit or transfer to another department,” Todd said. “If they don’t take action within [30 days], then the last one in is just considered to have abandoned their job.”



In the past, the city has drug tested all employees as a condition of employment. Todd said drug tests now need to be limited to safety-sensitive positions due to recent court cases.

The vast majority of city jobs would still require drug testing as most would be considered safety sensitive.