By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer
An administrative investigation following the escape of work-release inmate Christopher Northern on Aug. 30 uncovered “improper activities” in the city’s street department, City Attorney JT Gilbert said at Tuesday’s Berea City Council meeting.
Northern was apprehended by the U.S. Marshal’s Service nearly three and a half months after he walked away from his work detail. At the time of his escape, he was not considered a threat to the public, according to the Berea Police Department.
After the situation at the street department unfolded, three workers were required to take time off without pay, one was terminated and the department’s superintendent Tim Taylor resigned, said Mayor Steve Connelly.
“Employees felt intimidated and did not want to come forward with information on what was apparently going on down there,” Gilbert said.
Connelly said one of the “most surprising, if not shocking” parts of the investigation was the period of time a “fairly large number” of employees didn’t report the situation.
At the suggestion of Gilbert, the inmate work-release program was terminated and the city will implement a whistleblower policy “to provide an avenue of reporting and a guarantee of protection from retaliation,” according to Connelly, who said he hopes the city will never have this problem again.
Ethics rules and supervisory roles also will be reiterated to all city employees, he said.
The investigation following the escape of the inmate uncovered that the work-release employees were not being properly supervised. It also found inmates were permitted to use a cell phone during the ride from the detention center to Berea, and they were allowed to go into convenience stores and “buy items considered to be contraband in jail,” Gilbert said in his report Tuesday.
Further investigation found “lax practices that had developed” in the department such as the use of wash bays for personal jobs and city equipment loaned to employees, Connelly said, “but all of that is over now.”
Paul Schrader, geographic information system coordinator and city land surveyor, was asked to temporarily fill the position as supervisor of the street department.
After a “fundamental re-orientation” in the department, the employees’ morale is better and job satisfaction is higher, Connelly said. “We’re on the other side of that dark cloud, I believe.”
Executive order on personnel policies brought to council
On Feb. 14, Connelly signed an executive order to revise a section of the personnel policies to say the city is an equal opportunity employer and will not discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, political affiliation, age, genetics, disability, marital status or sexual orientation.
The executive order also extends domestic partner benefits.
Domestic partnership families also will be covered. Children who are either naturally born or legally adopted by the couple “shall meet the same eligibility requirements as the children of any other city employee family,” Connelly said.
The people constituting the domestic partnership must meet criteria to be eligible for benefits.
According to Appendix H of the policy, some examples of domestic partnership eligibility criteria are: The couple must have a single dedicated relationship of at least 12 months; they must share the same residence and the common necessities of life continuously for at least the previous 12 months; neither is currently married to another person outside the domestic partnership; they are financial interdependent; and each is mentally competent to consent to contract.
City insurance costs, with the inclusion of the new benefit, will not change, Connelly said.
Amendments by executive order are brought to the council for its review and consideration, or for the council to take further action if it chooses, the mayor said.
Council member Jerry Little asked to discuss the one personal day all city employees are granted. Currently, they must take the day in one eight-hour period, he said.
Little would like to revise the policy to allow employees to take two four-hour periods instead.
Council member Vi Farmer said when she worked in the school system, employees were permitted to split up their personal day.
“Sometimes you have business you could take care of in a half a day,” she said.
Connelly asked the council to review personnel policies and bring forth suggestions for a later discussion.
Strategic plan for Berea
Each year since 2003, except for last year, “the council and staff have spent the good part of the day considering the strengths, opportunities, threats and weaknesses that confront our community,” Connelly said.
After identifying those, the council came up with a mission statement, strategies and action plans to “guide us through the upcoming year,” he said.
The mayor outlined the following strategies:
1. Provide high-quality, timely and consistent city services.
2. Plans for demands of growth in a changing economy.
3. Maintain positive relationships with employees, citizens, industries, businesses, educational institutions, elected officials and other government and interest groups.
4. Explore opportunities offered by regional action.
5. Continue sound financial management.
6. Maintain and improve infrastructure.
7. Require fair, ethical, consistent and responsive conduct from all city employees and representatives.
In other business:
Former city council candidate Jerry Knowles proposed the use of Aflac supplemental insurance as opposed to the existing benefits offered to city employees through Allstate.
Knowles took an “informal poll of different employees from different departments” who were “somewhat unsatisfied” with the current insurance, he said.
Plus, since he is a local Aflac agent, he said, “any monies generated by this endeavor would be most likely 100 percent reinvested back into Berea, for obvious reasons.”
Knowles proposed an open enrollment for the insurance in June.
“It sounds like something that we should look at for our employee’s benefit as we go through this budgeting process,” Connelly replied. “I must say, though, Allstate and Aflac, they probably have two of the most creative commercials that you see on TV – I feel sorry for that duck.”
Knowles said there are two robotic ducks and four live ducks and that “no animals were hurt in any of the filming of the commercials, I can assure you.”
City Administrator Randy Stone said the city has an opportunity to refinance one of the bonds used to purchase Berea College Utilities in 2005.
One bond has already been paid off, but the other bond, worth about $9 million, extends to 2025.
If refinanced, it will save the city roughly $670,000 in interest payments, which is a savings of $5,000 a month, Stone said.
Crystal Wylie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.