County loses union arbitration
Columbia County lost an arbitration with AFSCME Council 75 Local 1442 regarding a county employee, Derek Fraser.
Fraser was the county's code enforcement officer from October 2018 through March 2019 but was removed from the position shortly before his probationary period would have concluded. He was a facilities technician for nearly a year prior to the promotion and was returned to that position in March.
AFSCME filed a complaint with the state, claiming that Columbia County had violated its collective bargaining agreement.
The union argued that when an employee advances to a new position, the county can only push that employee back to their prior position if they failed to perform satisfactorily in the new position.
Fraser became code enforcement officer while Todd Dugdale was still director of the Land Development Services department. Dugdale retired at the end of 2018 and was replaced by Karen Schminke in early 2019.
In March, Schminke and Human Resources Director Jean Ripa told Fraser that they were extending the probationary period, which was set to conclude March 31.
Ripa told Fraser that the extension was not due to any performance issues, but because Schminke had not had enough time to evaluate Fraser.
"Ripa told him that he had a Sophie's choice: either accept an extension of his probationary period or be returned to his prior position in facilities services," the arbitrator's report explained.
Fraser reported the extension to his union representative and the parties began negotiating. Both parties momentarily agreed to a four-month extension, but then the county returned to its original demand for a six-month extension.
Negotiations crumbled over when the extension would begin, with options for it to either start immediately or once the original probationary period ended, which would have made less than a 10-day difference.
In May, county commissioners voted to reject a request for mediation regarding Fraser's grievance.
During arbitration, the county claimed that because Fraser was in the probationary period of his position, the county could remove him from the position without the disciplinary process that non-probationary employees are guaranteed.
The county also highlighted concerns about Fraser's performance.
"The County noted that there were red flags throughout Fraser's entire probationary period: his failure to follow the chain (of) command; questions regarding his credibility and integrity; and his failure to keep up with the reporting duties of his position," the arbitrator's report summarized.
But the arbitrator determined that those concerns were not grounds for terminating Fraser's employment because they had never been voiced.
Throughout negotiations with Fraser and his union representative, and prior to arbitration, the county had not mentioned any performance issues.
The arbitrator wrote that the county's decision to stay silent during that process and only later mention employee failures "defies credulity."
In an email to Micaela Shaprio-Shellaby, the union representative, Ripa wrote that Schminke needed more time "not just to access work performance but also to see how things work out as the parameters of the program change. Karen (and I) have every hope and expectation that Derek can do well as things are changing. But time is not on our side. That's nobody's fault."
The issues with the code enforcement position went far beyond Fraser's performance.
Robert Crain had served in the position for roughly 20 years before being fired after investigations into suspected coercion, theft and misconduct.
When Fraser took over the position, he found that in addition to misusing his position, Crain had also allegedly ignored reported violations and left behind a major backlog.
With a new code enforcement officer and new department head, the purpose and function of Fraser's position was unclear.
When Fraser was promoted, he was given a decade-old position description.
"He was given no memo of expectation, protocols for dealing with other departments or established guidance for the performance of the job," the arbitrator wrote.
After Fraser's demotion, the county changed the position of code enforcement officer to land use compliance specialist.
Fraser is currently deployed with the National Guard but will take on the position when he returns.
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