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City fires Civil Service Commission examiner

Allegations of closed-door meetings and gag orders between city administration, the Bainbridge Island Police Department and the independent Civil Service Commission (CSC) have raised issues concerning the level of communication and transparency between the three bodies.

After an often-heated debate Wednesday night, the council took a 4-2 vote as a symbolic confirmation that the commission’s prior decision to terminate the contract of Kim Hendrickson, the commission’s secretary/chief examiner (S/CE), and replace her with a city employee.

At an Aug. 12 meeting, the Civil Service Commission voted to terminate the contract, effective Sept. 30. The council, which has a limited role in commission business, made Wednesday’s vote as a public show of support for the CSC’s decision.

The vote came after two weeks of controversial exchanges between Hendrickson and  two of the three commission members, both of whom eventually resigned only to decided to rescind their resignations after the backed them.

Hendrickson had raised concerns that she was fired only after becoming a whistle-blower for issues related to police hiring practices and communications done behind closed doors.

Councilors Bob Scales, Kirsten Hytopoulos, Hilary Franz and Barry Peters voted to support the commission’s decision to terminate the contract and move the position responsibilities to an existing city employee. Councilor Kim Brackett had left council chambers just before the vote.

Bauer said she proposed the contract termination and use of a city employee primarily as a way to address security concerns related to the keeping of public records. Bauer said it was a security threat to give Hendrickson access to City Hall since she is not a city employee.

Bauer had also said having a city employee serve the commission would also address budget concerns, but at Wednesday’s meeting she said the amount of money in question was minuscule; Hendrickson earned about $3,500 in 2010.

Councilor Bill Knobloch called Wednesday’s council conversation “bureaucratic hijinks” and spelled out potential violations of the Open Meeting’s Act between Bauer, City Attorney Jack Johnson and the three commission members who allegedly met in private to discuss the future of the S/CE position.

The commission is primarily responsible for overseeing police department hires to ensure the process is based on merit instead of favoritism, and make sure that employment decisions such as demotions and promotions are done in accordance with protections for employee interests.

The S/CE serves as the “general manager” and “executive officer” of the commission, executes commission rules, oversees employment exams and testing, writes job descriptions and various other tasks associated with the hiring process.

Hendrickson said that troubles first started when she began to address areas of inefficiency and compliance issues with city staff. Beginning in December, according to commission minutes, the commission complained of being left in the dark with issues related to provisional Officer David Portrey, who was at the scene when another officer fatally shot island resident Douglas Ostling.

According to the minutes, Police Chief Jon Fehlman did not communicate the status of Portrey’s employment and his leave of absence and temporary employment, and failed to inform the commission of the shooting.

In January, the commission addressed Fehlman about the status change of four lieutenants to the position of sergeant. Police staff said the change was lateral, and had no impact on duties or pay, but the lieutenants and Bainbridge Island Police Guild filed an appeal. Bauer later dropped the proposal.

In that same month, Hendrickson raised concerns with Bauer’s decision to hire a city employee who was facing layoff as a parking enforcement officer. The commission stated that the decision wasn’t done in compliance with the commissionCSC rules, and was an example of another communication breakdown between the three bodies.

Frustration grew as Hendrickson’s access to commission documents and a request for a city computer, email and office space were denied. Hendrickson flagged that the commission was out of compliance with the “rooms and supplies” provision in RCW 41.12, and had requested space in City Hall to “satisfy the legal obligation to provide the employee with the necessary tools to perform S/CE duties.”

Commission files were being kept on a personal computer, and Hendrickson was using a gmail account to correspond for commission business, including correspondence with potential police employees.

Hendrickson said the “gag order” came when commission members asked Hendrickson not to “share approved minutes unless by request.”

The idea to terminate the S/CE position and transfer responsibilities to a city employee was first brought up during a meeting between the three commissioners and Bauer in her office, according to Hendrickson.

“It is not as if the Civil Service Commission actually came up with the idea themselves and the city manager had not met with them and brought this idea forward,” said Brackett. “This change originated with the city manager. If I were queen for the day that’s a great idea, but I would have taken it to the commission in an open meeting with a written proposal.”

According to Deputy City Manager Morgan Smith, reorganizing the commission was not listed on the city’s workplace for 2011.

The council was clearly divided on the issue.

Councilor Scales argued that this is a citizen commission staffed by three volunteers who came forward with an idea to “help the city” and were attacked and have since resigned (and now have rescinded their resignations) because of it. Scales said the situation had spiraled out of control and the hyperbole would threaten other city volunteers who would see this it as a threat.

“We should talk them out of resigning and get on with the work that needs to be done,” said Scales.

Franz stated that it was an important example of why the council should not get involved with employment issues. She stated employee concerns should only be addressed within budget concerns.

Councilors Knobloch and Brackett had attended the commission meetings when the vote was taken to terminate the contract. Brackett said she attended, in part, to address issues she heard in the community.

After the council’s vote Hendrickson said: “So now my contract has been terminated twice. An unprecedented, and unhappy, situation.”

 

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