Possible litigation stalls fresh look at at-will worker policy
URBANA — Two Urbana city council members are treading lightly as they launch an effort to reform the city’s hiring policies regarding about 30 positions that serve at the will of the mayor.
Before Alderwoman Diane Marlin, D-Ward 7, could read her and Alderman Eric Jakobsson’s proposals to change employment policies for at-will employees during Monday night’s committee of the whole meeting, they were interrupted by the city attorney, who suggested they not do so.
They started their effort to change those policies in the weeks after former accounting supervisor Liz Walden was not invited by Mayor Laurel Prussing to return to city employment at the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.
Walden was one of those 30 employees who serve by virtue of mayoral appointment, and her employment must be renewed annually. She said she was not given a reason for her dismissal, and cited her unblemished job evaluations as she made a plea for her job.
Prussing has maintained that she had good reason to not reappoint Walden.
Not long after Walden was not reappointed, Walden’s boss, former Comptroller Bill DeJarnette, resigned citing a “toxic” work environment.
On Monday, Marlin and Jakobsson, D-Ward 2, came ready with proposals they hope will create “a professional workplace that focuses on service to residents and businesses of Urbana and one that encourages collaboration, innovation and creativity,” Marlin said.
They were stopped before they could get into the details.
“Ms. Walden has threatened litigation against the city, and I think any comments could be extremely damaging to any defense the city would choose to mount,” City Attorney Jim Simon told the city council on Monday night.
Marlin and Jakobsson had hoped to put their proposals up for a vote within the next few weeks, but Simon suggested they wait at least six to eight months and “see where the litigation goes.”
They would like to reduce the number of at-will employees — those who must be appointed and reappointed directly by the mayor — from 30 to 10. They want administrators to conduct a “workplace climate survey” with all city and Urbana Free Library employees to “identify opportunities for improvement.”
They also want the mayor to inform the city council in writing when appointments or job descriptions change.
The two city council members eventually yielded to the city attorney’s advice on Monday, but not before a short debate about whether or not they should present their ideas in an open meeting.
“We are talking about policy,” Jakobsson said. “We are not talking about any personnel matter. We have not mentioned any personnel matter. We’ve actually gone out of our way not to do that.”
Simon suggested Marlin and Jakobsson meet with him privately, “outside of the Open Meetings Act,” if they would like to talk about their proposals.
Marlin said there has been a call for a response after this summer’s shakeup in the city finance department.
“The public expects us to respond to the events of this summer,” Marlin said.