Howard City’s proposed employee policy changes face questionable legality

By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 11:30 am on Friday, March 17, 2017

HOWARD CITY — Proposed policy changes that would cause village employees to be fired for saying anything critical of the village are now being reconsidered after The Daily News filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

During the Feb. 20 meeting of the Howard City Village Council, Village Manager-President Randy Heckman distributed to council members copies of proposed changes he wants to make to the village employee policy manual.

The Daily News requested a copy of the proposed changes and was told to submit a FOIA. The Daily News did so and received a copy of the proposed changes.

One of the changes seems directly aimed at employees of the Department of Public Works (DPW), who have long had conflicts with Heckman and the Village Council.

DPW employee Bill Cornelisse told The Daily News that he and his DPW colleagues are in the process of unionizing with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Cornelisse said they met with a union representative last week, signed the necessary documents and are waiting to hear back from the rep.

The controversial proposed change to the village employee policy manual reads as follows: “Criticizing departmental operations, policy, supervisor performance, Village Council members or village manager in a derogatory manner will not be tolerated in the media or on social media (media being defined as local newspapers, radio stations, etc.; social media being defined as Facebook, Twitter or any other social media outlets). Any statements made to the media or on social media that tarnishes the image of the village, Village Council, council members or village manager will be subject to consequences stated as Group III offense.”

The proposed change is listed as “immediate discharge” for an employee’s first offense of violating this policy.

When contacted by The Daily News this week to ask about the policy change, Heckman said, “I think that may have to be eliminated. We are working with a labor attorney to make sure everything is legal.”

According to Michigan Press Association attorney Robin Luce Herrmann, although a government employer may limit speech of employees, those circumstances are limited and typically involve limiting employees speaking in their “official capacity” or on behalf of the government employer.

“This (proposed) policy (Howard City’s), in my opinion, improperly infringes on the free speech rights of the employees because it is so broad as to include their own, private — such as non-official — speech,” Luce Herrmann said. “Moreover, the National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly held that policies like this violate employees’ rights to engage in ‘protected concerted activity’ because they prevent an employee from discussing terms and conditions of employment with fellow employees. Employees have the right to engage in protected concerted activity whether or not their workplace is unionized.”

Most of the proposed changes to Howard City’s employee policy manual are designed to give the village manager more oversight over village matters. Heckman is in the process of resigning as village manager and the Village Council is expected to discuss candidates for new village manager during Monday’s regular meeting.

Additional proposed changes include:

• All policies are subject to change by the Village Council. Employees will be given a copy of the policy change after adoption.

• All requests for information from media sources will be directed to the village manager.

• The village is not required to provide break periods.

• All employees of the village, except part-time, temporary or seasonal employees, will be granted 40 hours paid time off (PTO) to be used for sick and personal time.

• Accrual of approved vacation and PTO hours will be interrupted if an employee is on sick leave longer than 15 working days.

• All vacations must be approved by department heads and the village manager following a request by an employee to take his/her vacation at a specific time, consistent with efficient department operations. When multiple requests for vacation are received, than can be granted at one time, the employee with the highest seniority making a request will be given preference.

• The employee’s supervisor and village manager must approve and sign the request before vacation time is granted.

• All village employees will be allowed the opportunity to attend training and classes pertinent to their job duties. In order to be compensated, it must be approved by the village manager prior to training.

• All DPW personnel are required to stand by on rotating weeks. One person must be on call each weekend and must be able to work within half an hour if called. If this person is called to work, he will receive pay at the overtime rate. Schedule to be given to the village manager at the beginning of each month.

• Any solicitations among village employees during working hours, regardless of purpose, must be approved by the village manager.

The next regular Howard City Village Council meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday.

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