Civil service employees appealing a disciplinary action or termination without an attorney can once again be met with counsel representing the county or any of its agencies.
Forsyth County commissioners on Thursday seemed set to ratify previously discussed changes to civil service policy that would allow only constitutional officers, such as the sheriff, to have an attorney represent them in a hearing regardless of whether an employee opts to do so.
The commission made a modification, suggested by the three-member civil service board, which extends the option to any county agency to have counsel.
Richard Neville, the civil service board’s attorney, said the members were concerned about unequal treatment for employees under the civil service system.
“We believe it’s somewhat unfair to employees who work for the sheriff’s [office] or for a constitutional officer, versus an employee who works for just the county,” Neville said. “The idea is to make it across the board.”
If only allowing the exception for employees who fall under constitutional officers, the civil service system would then create different treatment among county workers, he said, summing up the civil service board concerns.
The members still preferred the previous rule, that the county will not bring an attorney to a hearing if the employee does not hire one.
“It leveled the playing field for the employee appealing, and it cut down on the county’s cost,” Neville said. “We’ve had an issue arise with constitutional officers who have said, ‘Well, we want to have our own attorney who is not the county attorney.’ We understand that the board probably needs to allow that.”
Sheriff Duane Piper contended that his power as a constitutional officer gives him the right to have an attorney represent the agency at a civil service hearing if he felt it’s in the best interest of residents.
Piper also noted that the office has a different attorney than the county attorney, Ken Jarrard.
Jarrard did not have a definitive answer for the commissioners on Thursday as to whether the power vested in constitutional officers required making a change to the civil service handbook, but he did offer some analysis.
“We know that constitutional officers are powerful in Georgia. We know that they are independent, sovereign entities,” he said. “However, I believe they yield some of that sovereignty when they opt into our civil service system.”
The only way to truly weigh the rights of a constitutional officer to that of a civil service system rules, he said, would be a declaratory judgment action in court.
Jarrard said the last changes made that allowed an employee to determine whether attorneys would be involved was intended to bring an end to the increasing sophistication of the civil service hearings and return to more of a “people’s court.”
“That was done a while ago in an effort to streamline, perhaps make less formal and, candidly, expensive, the civil service process,” he said.
The trend had been that employees possibly felt pressure to have an attorney, knowing the county would have one, according to Jarrard.
Commissioner Todd Levent wanted to leave the policy as it was, stating the changes prevented the county from “coming down with a hammer” on pro se employees during hearings.
He also felt that county employees shouldn’t have different civil service rights, and hesitated before casting his vote on the changes, which passed 5-0.
The new policy requires a county agency using an attorney to notify the civil service clerk of that intent at least 10 days before the hearing.
The changes made Thursday are unlikely to affect the scheduled termination appeal hearing for former deputy Walter Skowronski on Aug. 8.