Where there’s an at will, there’s a way
Mono Supervisors mull changes to at will management employee contracts
It wasn’t Wisconsin. There were no raucous protests, and no Mono County Supervisors holed up in Inyo County hotel rooms. However, an agenda item on Management Compensation Policy elicited a spirited Board discussion about Mono County’s compensation policies and principles, including proposed changes in standard terms of contracts with individual management employees.
Some of those changes concerned more flexibility to modify parts of already in force contracts, including salaries, cost of living increases and other allowances. Other changes involved lesser facets, such as a more straightforward way for employees to waive certain perks, should they choose to do so.
Supervisor Larry Johnston, for example, has been trying to forego a sizeable percentage of his car allowance, and has had to write checks back to the County, essentially reimbursing the budget for money he doesn’t want to take.
As a Supervisor, Johnston is awarded a car allowance whether he likes it or not – and he ends up writing checks back to the County more often than not because he often chooses to ride his bike instead and doesn’t use the full allowance.
So-called “at will” management employees include various department heads and executive staff, including the 5 Mono Supervisors. At will assumes no union affiliation and according to legal doctrine, “any hiring is presumed to be at will … that is, the employer is free to discharge individuals for good, bad or no cause at all, and the employee is equally free to quit, strike or otherwise cease work.”
Mono County is unlike most California counties, with most management-level employees, and several elected positions, under at-will contracts.
Under Mono County practice, performance or merit-based pay bonuses are at the discretion of department heads; at will employees can get up to 5% of salary, with County Administrative Officer approval. Management salaries are based on a percentage of the department head’s pay. For example: an auditor’s assistant is 80% of the auditor’s salary, etc. The County’s at will policy was formally adopted in September 2005, and comes up every Sept. 30 for Board review.
Johnston said that in today’s society, where the public has a perception of “fat cats in government with fat salaries and fat benefits,” such contracts amount to how to be fair to employees while being fair to the electorate.
“When elected, one of my goals was to look seriously at what appear to be nice benefit packages, which in the past were okay because we could afford it or it was easy to look the other way.”
Johnston came out against the perk of performance pay. “I don’t think management should get that, though I did get it once,” he acknowledged. “Things have changed and will change more if the taxes proposed for the June special election don’t pass. And who’s going to vote for them? Who wants more taxes? I’m happy to approve any agreements, but only if there’s verbiage in them that gives us more flexibility.”
“Everyone should take some kind of a pay cut,” Supervisor Tim Hansen remarked. “We need to have the ability to change things; we can take no action, but then our only recourse is to lay people off if the economy gets worse.” The history of at-will, he said, has been based on raising salaries and the economy expanding. Hansen added he’s not interested in picking at benefits, but favors a percentage shaved off the top across the board.
Management participation in healthcare was also brought up. Supervisor Vikki Bauer posited that “elected, rank and file and management should be treated equally when it comes to cost savings, but we need to get the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) situation in line before doing anything else.”
Meanwhile, rank and file has received some raises during the past two years, but not management, which hasn’t taken any raises during that period, Supervisor Byng Hunt said management is going to have to work through this together with the rank and file.
“I for one am not interested in having a contract when it can be arbitrarily changed,” Finance Director Brian Muir commented. “Why should I have a contract in that case? I will live up to the terms of my contract, but I expect the County to live up to its part as well. There’s a matter of trust here, but it goes both ways.”
Curiously, Bauer seemed to support his position. “We can’t have something if it’s arbitrary,” she said. “I’d hate to undo all the hard work that’s gone into moving [the contract policy] forward. The constituents might not realize it today, but someday they’ll go into a County office and expect great service. I see supporting management in a non-arbitrary fashion as being responsible to the electorate.”
“One reason to go at will and give up civil service status was to get paid better, and if you couldn’t do the job, then you’d get fired,” commented Assistant District Attorney Tim Kendall, whose contract was one of two up for renewal Tuesday. “If the County wants to get rid of at will status, that’s fine, but then it would mean going back to civil service status, which takes things back to where they started. Today we have competent, efficient managers that run things far better than 10 years ago.”
Byng Hunt said he’s willing to cut his salary and do whatever he can to help. “I’m not putting things on employees without sacrificing on my own part,” Hunt stated. Johnston, however, said he didn’t find contract flexibility arbitrary and rejected the idea of “burying our head in the sand” yet again. He liked Hansen’s percentage concept. He added he’s not willing to back any new contract extensions as written.
The Board opted to approve any last pending contract renewals and go forward with more employee negotiations, hoping in the meantime to get more clarity from Sacramento, where legislators and the governor remain stalemated on any sort of budget deal.