Let’s say you apply for a job, and the employer offers you that job. You accept, are fingerprinted and photographed, are assigned an employee number, sent a welcome package and told to show up for work. Would you assume you had a job? Pinellas County government says “not so fast”.
Tracey Jaensch of the Ford Harrison law firm in Tampa argued that position during a hearing in a labor lawsuit on May 10th. The case involves Norm Roche, who worked for Pinellas County for 10 years. Roche also served 4 years as a county commissioner from 2010 to 2014.
When Roche failed to win re-election in 2014, he applied for 27 different county job. He was rejected for all. Some say it’s because of his actions as a county commissioner, actions like being the lone vote opposing the Greenlight Pinellas tax hike in 2013 and 2014.
Roche persisted in his job search, applying for a civil service job as a customer service representative at $14.26 per hour in the utilities department. Roche was offered a job and accepted the job offer.
However, the job offer was rescinded six days later on the orders of County Administrator Mark Woodard, the highest level county employee. The parties agree on the above facts.
Roche’s attorney Jody Rubaii argues that Woodard had no authority to do “unhire” Roche because of the Unified Personnel System Act (UPS) which governs county personnel matters. The UPS, applicable to Pinellas County only, was passed by the Florida Legislature in 1975. The purpose of the UPS is to insure that favoritism, nepotism, patronage and other unwanted factors do not enter into personnel decisions.
A board, the UPS Board, oversees and administers the UPS law. The UPS has been a cornerstone in keeping county government non-unionized. There have recently been efforts to unionize more employees of the City of St. Petersburg, a move that Mayor Kriseman has opposed.
Roche provided the Guardian a copy of his employment letter (on right, click it for a larger view). It seems a person who received such a letter would reasonably assume that they did in fact have a job, but we’ll let you be the judge.
The letter begins with “Welcome aboard” and also says “Unified Personnel System” in the upper right hand corner. Jaensch argued that Roche never had a job because the job offer was rescinded before Roche did any work for the county. Therefore, he also had no recourse under the UPS.
However, text messages (below) show that top county staff, including personnel director Peggy Rowe, worked very hard to find something “to be used” against Roche. Rowe also specifically advised “against putting a policy in place in the middle of a crisis”. How the hiring of a $14,26 per hour customer service specialist was a “crisis” is unclear.
Judge Cynthia Newton listened to arguments for an hour, and will have to decide the key question: does the County Administrator have the right to make hiring decisions for classified employees? The UPS uses the term “classified employees” to distinguish them from higher-level “exempt employees”, who the County Administrator can terminate at any time.
The Florida Attorney General does not issue opinions local laws like UPS. However, a 2005 Ethics Commission ruling flatly stated that the UPS law “makes the UPS Board the final authority in all personnel actions” involving classified employees. In other words: not the County Administrator.
Rubaii argued that Roche’s “unhiring” was unlawful, and may have been due to petty vindictiveness. Judge Newton did not say when she would rule on the matter.
There is recent evidence of Woodard overstepping his authority in another area: tax hikes. Woodard told the Tampa Bay Times, as reported on May 3rd, 2016, that he’s already “had conversations” with the county administrator in Hillsborough County about having coordinated tax hikes. Woodard’s job description says that one of this “tasks” is this:
“Confers with representatives of other jurisdictions, developers, private industry, civic and community groups on matters of interest pertaining to Board policies and initiatives.”
However, there is no “board policy or initiative” aimed at coordinating a tax hike across county lines. A public records request that the Guardian made proved that. Therefore, the discussion he had with the top representative of another jurisdiction (Hillsborough County) violated Woodard’s job description.
Update 5/17/2016 9:00 A.M.: two requests for comment or rebuttal directed at Mr. Woodard have gone unanswered.
— by Tom Rask