ELIZABETHTON, TN – The City of Elizabethton is backtracking after previously approving the promotion of a police officer.
Officer Matt Taylor is challenging the way the city promotes its police officers, arguing he deserves the rank of corporal, along with a more than $4,000 raise and back pay.
If the officer wins more than half of the police department could make the same argument, potentially costing Elizabethton hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Whether he and others deserve that promotion depends on who ask and which city document you rely on.
“The problem is there are two different documents that say two different things,” Mayor Curt Alexander said.
Historically, the city has promoted its officers when they reach six years of experience with the department, which is laid out in Elizabethton’s compensation pay plan. However, the police department’s classification plan reveals an officer can reach the rank of corporal with a combination of experience and education.
With that information the police chief requested a promotion on behalf of Taylor in November. City Manager Jerome Kichens initially approved the promotion. Not long after the city manager’s approval, Kichens changed his mind, resulting in Taylor filing a grievance.
“It is at this point a critical mistake was made on my part that has led to this grievance,” Kichens said in a memo to the officer in December. “The (Payroll Adjustment Form) came to me without an approval signature from Human Resources…Human Resources raised the flag that moving to corporal with less than six (6) years of on the job experience did not conform to any prior reclassifications…I am truly sorry that I have disappointed Officer Taylor because from all accounts he is an excellent officer and has many accomplishments. In addition although this has created emotional turmoil to him he has acted professionally and politely at all times.”
Kingsport Attorney Bruce Shine represents the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, of which he says the police officer in question is a member.
“One would say it’s somewhat sloppy,” Shine said of the situation. “The city has no one to blame but itself.”
The city’s Personnel Advisory Board heard the officer’s grievance in January. During that meeting the board unanimously supported Taylor’s cause, according to member Kelly Geagley. However, despite that vote, the board never put its decision to override the city manager in writing, Kichens said.
The lack of action that followed outraged City Council Member Wes Frazier.
“I’m not very happy right now,” Frazier said. “As a taxpayer and a city councilman I think we should do what’s right, because it’s an embarrassment. This should have done been took care of. We’ve got to do what’s right.”
Earlier this month, Shine sent a letter to all of the members of the Personnel Advisory Board.
“It is my understanding that a decision was made by the Personnel Advisory Board and that decision concluded the proper procedures were not followed by the City Manager in addressing my client’s grievance regarding implementation of his corporal promotion/pay raise dated November 17, 2015,” the letter said. “I cannot help but note that on November 17, 2015, the City Manager along with Police Chief Greg Workman, Personnel Director Angie Lyons and (the Finance Director) all agreed and signed off on a personnel action promoting my client to corporal and granting him relief retroactively to April 4, 2015.”
According to Kichens, whatever the city ultimately decides could impact the salaries of 23 of the police department’s 40 officers, which could possibly cost the city more than $300,000.
“This is a pretty large issue and actually deals with a whole lot more than just one person,” Kichens said. “This is a major issue. I don’t want to do wrong by him. I don’t want to do wrong by the city.”
The mayor says the city needs to do the right thing, whatever that may be.
“This is a huge deal and the bottom line is I try not to look at the dollars as much as I look at what’s right,” Mayor Alexander said. “Whatever we do in this particular case we need to do the right thing and we need to make sure that everybody is treated fairly and treated equally.”
Just days ago, the Personnel Advisory Board met again and this time Elizabethton Assistant City Attorney Charlton Devault told members the city council never approved an updated employee classification plan or compensation pay plan in recent years, which means any decision advisory board members made doesn’t matter.
“The board did not have authority to hear and decide anything,” he said during Friday’s meeting. “They lacked authority and jurisdiction.”
Shine has a different take. He says the city failed and shouldn’t take out its mistake on its police officers.
“If it administratively did not properly follow its own rules and regulations then it’s their fault,” Shine said. “The right thing to do is to be fair to the employees. I think what they need to do is acknowledge their indebtedness to Mr. Taylor and the other officers, as expensive as that may be, then sit down and look at the situation and correct what errors may be there.”
The Personnel Advisory Board is expected to reverse its original vote at a special called meeting on February 24.