TEMPERS FLARE AT COMMISSIONERS COURT MEETING AFTER LEARNING OF LATE FILING OF GRIEVANCE

BY ROBERT MORALES

A grievance filed on Monday by County-District Clerk Linda McDonald regarding budget procedures drew anger from County Judge Carlos Urias as well as other commissioners on Tuesday evening. What drew the ire of Mr. Urias, commissioners and other elected officials was that Ms. McDonald waited until Monday to officially file the salary grievance.

During the last budgetary hearing, commissioners voted to increase salaries for employees and elected officials. The Advocate published a notice about the proposed raises in the Sept. 17 edition. Mr. Urias suggested that the published notice gave full legal notice although according to state law, a notice regarding the increases should have been provided to individual elected officials.

Title 5, Chapter 152, Sec. 152.013 of the Local Government Code states: “PROCEDURE FOR SETTING AMOUNTS FOR ELECTED OFFICERS.  (a)  Each year the commissioners court shall set the salary, expenses, and other allowances of elected county or precinct officers.  The commissioners court shall set the items at a regular meeting of the court during the regular budget hearing and adoption proceedings.

(b)  Before the 10th day before the date of the meeting, the commissioners court must publish in a newspaper of general circulation in the county a notice of:

(1)  any salaries, expenses, or allowances that are proposed to be increased;  and

(2)  the amount of the proposed increases.

(c)  Before filing the annual budget with the county clerk, the commissioners court shall give written notice to each elected county and precinct officer of the officer’s salary and personal expenses to be included in the budget.

Regarding salary grievances, Sec. 152.016 of the Code states: “FUNCTIONS OF GRIEVANCE COMMITTEE IN RELATION TO ELECTED OFFICERS.”  (a)  An elected county or precinct officer who is aggrieved by the setting of the officer’s salary or personal expenses may request a hearing before the salary grievance committee before the approval of the county’s annual budget.  The request must:

(1)  be in writing;

(2)  be delivered to the committee chairman within five days after the date the officer receives notice of the salary or personal expenses;  and

(3)  state the desired change in salary or personal expenses.

(b)  The committee shall hold a public hearing not later than the later of the 10th day after:

(1)  the date the request is received;  or

(2)  the date the commissioners court selects the public members of the committee.

(b-1)  The chairman shall announce the time and place of the hearing.

(c)  If, after the hearing, six or more of the members vote to recommend an increase in the officer’s salary or personal expenses, the committee shall submit its recommendation to the commissioners court in writing.  If six to eight members vote to recommend the increase, the commissioners court shall consider the recommendation at its next meeting.  If nine members vote to recommend the increase and sign the recommendation, the commissioners court shall include the increase in the budget before the budget is filed and the increase takes effect in the next budget year.

(d)  The committee’s authority is limited to the consideration of increases in the salaries or personal expenses of county and precinct officers.  The committee may not set policy of the county or add new items to a proposed county budget.

“There are things that haven’t been done in this county for years and years,” said Mr. Urias. “When notice was published in the paper, we met that standard [giving ample notice]. What the law says is that individual officials must also receive the notice as well. That’s when the grievance process begins.”

He added elected officials knew exactly what was going on with the proposed budget. “Because of the insufficient notice, the request for a grievance hearing was turned in to me yesterday. The grievance committee is subject to the 72-hour public meeting notice requirement. I would have liked for the grievance to be turned in at an earlier time,” said Mr. Urias. “If the grievance had been filed shortly after the published notice, we could have heard the grievance.”

Mr. Urias, visibly frustrated, told commissioners that the court had never acted in a malicious manner toward any employee or elected official.

The county’s fiscal year begins on Oct. 1 and a budget must be adopted by Oct. 1. Because of the grievance, commissioners face what County Attorney Steve Mitchell said was “a rock and a hard place.” Mr. Mitchell was referring to the damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario posed by the late filing of the grievance.

Commissioners were given two poor options: (A) vote in favor of the budget with the salary increases; or (B) vote for a budget with no increases for all employees and revert to the budget numbers for the 2014 fiscal budget. In either case, the court could face a legal challenge because of individual notice that was not provided to elected officials.

“If we’re going to yank the raises proposed to elected officials,” said Mr. Urias, “we must also notify them to get the grievance process going. “This wasn’t done maliciously; it was an oversight. When the team doesn’t work together as we see in what’s happening for the past two years, the machine breaks down. Those elected officials who are not part of the team should consider not running for office again.”

“May I say something?” asked Ms. McDonald. After a brief pause, Mr. Urias responded.

“I would have preferred that you approach me and not surprise the court, but I’ll allow you to say something,” said Mr. Urias.

“I did speak with Texas Association of Counties (TAC) and I am the one who filed the grievance.” Ms. McDonald proceeded to read from the Local Government Code as well as from attorney general opinions.

An angry Mr. Urias posed another question to Ms. McDonald.

“Because you wanted more money and because you’re not satisfied with what the court did, you’ll do away with everyone else’s salary?”

“I did what I had to do for me and my employees [sic],” said Ms. McDonald.

In a final retort, Mr. Urias added, “The answer is ‘yes.’”

Lupito Alvarado who was sitting as an audience member suggested to the court that it should adopt the current proposed budget and take up the grievance at a later date because there was no evidence to suggest that anything untoward had taken place.

“If not for the late filing of the grievance, I don’t know of anything malicious [that occurred], said Mr. Mitchell. “You have timetables that are statutorily placed in front of you that don’t mesh. Unless we can throw the calendar into the blender and come out with a different recipe, a lot of innocent people are going to be hurt.”

Mr. Mitchell reminded Mr. Alvarado “hands were tied” because of the mandatory 72-hour notice for a grievance hearing. 

“Seventy-two hours equals October. People are at the threshold of losing their raises because of this grievance [which was filed at the last minute].”

Mr. Alvarado asked Mr. Mitchell whether rescinding the grievance would solve the problem. “Address that person, not me. My point is that we’re trapped between timetables that no one can unwind,” said Mr. Mitchell.

“No one took a piece of paper and hand-delivered to individual officer holders. That was an oversight. The judge addressed that quite frankly. That oversight is now being used with a very-late filed grievance to trip up the system and cause all employees and elected officials to lose any potential raises,” he added.

“None of this has to happen,” said Mr. Mitchell. “Mr. Alvarado pointed out that this could be rescinded, but that’s up to the person who filed the grievance. Substantively, those [dual] notices were given not only to the public, but also to elected officials with the newspaper notice. Yes, you can argue that’s not quite enough. The issue becomes moot. People are going to be hurt by this or they won’t.” 

Prior to commissioners voting on a budget with or without raises, Mr. Mitchell provided a philosophical perspective.

“One of the principles that are supposed to have been followed since the days of the Greeks and Romans is the person in charge, or the group of persons in charge, always seem to find the greater good for the greater number.”

Commissioners voted unanimously for the proposed 2015 budget – which includes raises for all employees and elected officials.