The Herald Bulletin

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January 7, 2013

Grant County judge says assessor, recorder can set own work rules

Ruling parallels Anderson case

ANDERSON, Ind. — Government workers in Madison County could be subject to five different sets of employment rules depending on which elected official they work for under a ruling issued by a Grant County judge.

“What we have is a nightmare right now,” County Attorney James Wilson said of the 13-page New Year’s Day order issued by Judge Warren Haas.

Wilson said county officials are just beginning to assess how to deal with the order.

At issue is a lawsuit filed by United Auto Workers Local 1963 in 2011, shortly after Larry Davis and Angela Shelton took office as assessor and recorder, respectively.

Davis and Shelton did not retain longtime employees, or chose to fire some. In addition, they said they were not bound by terms of a collective bargaining agreement reached between the Board of County Commissioners and the union in 2009.

“The question before the court,” wrote Haas, “is whether the Commissioners and County Council are legally authorized to bind the elected officers to the terms of a collective bargaining agreement.”

Based on his findings of fact and legal cases cited by both sides in the dispute, Haas concluded that the assessor, recorder and, by extension, other elected officers (even though they weren’t part of the suit), are independent of the commissioners and County Council in the appointment, discipline, removal and work of their deputies and employees.

In some respects, the ruling parallels a decision reached by Madison Circuit Court Judge Dennis Carroll last fall, when he invalidated part of a union contract with Anderson firefighters. The central issue in that case, however, was an assertion by Mayor Kevin Smith that a contract provision barring layoffs hindered the city’s authority to set minimum staffing levels in the Anderson Fire Department.

Similarly, a concern raised by Haas in the county’s lawsuit is a contract provision that permits termination only for “just cause.” That conflicts with at-will employment statutes in the county’s personnel handbook.

In addition, the contract requires strict adherence to a progressive discipline policy, a mandatory and lengthy four-step grievance policy, adherence to a seniority system for laying off employees and filling vacancies.

While the union sought to characterize those contract provisions as “only standards or guidelines,” according to Haas, he disagreed with those assertions.

When all the statutes cited in the case are taken together, Haas said, the framers of the Indiana constitution and the General Assembly intended for elected officers to be able to perform the functions of their office free from interference.

The collective bargaining agreement “usurps and impairs the elected officers’ authority and independence with respect to their deputies and employees,” Haas wrote. “Therefore, the statutes, to the extent they might be read to conflict, must be construed to forbid such impairment.”

Wilson said Haas’ ruling will require changes in how the county handles personnel policies. He added, however, that it would not be desirable to have five different sets of policies, which will require some cooperation between independently elected officeholders.

Lawyers for UAW Local 1963 could not be reached for comment on Monday. They have 30 days to appeal the order, Wilson said.

Find Stu Hirsch on Facebook and @StuHirsch on Twitter, or call 640-4861.

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