BROOKSVILLE — The issue before the County Commission on Tuesday was whether the county should give every departing employee a lump sum of money for their unused time off, regardless of whether they were leaving in good graces or under a cloud.
But when the time came for the board members to comment, not a word was spoken.
On Wednesday, all five commissioners finally spoke up. They said they did not want their silence to indicate they were not concerned about the message the policy sends to taxpayers and employees.
In fact, they said, they largely agree with a strongly worded memo from Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai saying, in part: "Employees who do not leave in good standing should not be rewarded for those actions.''
The memo, written in early March by Nicolai and her audit services director Peggy Caskey, said the commission's action last month to remove a provision to withhold paid time off if an employee doesn't leave in good standing "is not a good business practice and it sends the wrong message to employees and members of the public.''
County human resources director Cheryl Marsden had proposed the change in February, saying that it would be simpler to consider PTO — vacation and sick time mostly — as an earned benefit. Commissioners approved those changes with almost no discussion in February.
When the Nicolai memo popped up on Tuesday's agenda under "Correspondence to note" and Chairman John Druzbick asked repeatedly if anyone wanted to comment on any item, no commissioner spoke up.
Commissioner Jim Adkins said he spoke to Marsden before the meeting expressing concern about the policy in its current format.
"I don't like it,'' he said. "I have a problem with it — but we've got to get this run by legal. What is good standing, bad standing,'' he said. "If you're going to give the money to one employee and not to another, you have to have a good reason.''
Adkins also agreed with Nicolai's assertion that having language in the policy stating that under certain circumstances an employee may not get their PTO could be a deterrent.
"It would be a deterrent to me if I were an employee. I'd want to leave in good standing,'' Adkins said.
Commissioner Dave Russell said that although he didn't talk about the policy on Tuesday he intends to talk to County Administrator David Hamilton about it so that it can come back to another commission meeting.
"I think that Karen put it very succinctly. You have to draw a line,'' Russell said. "But it's not a black-and-white issue.''
He said he understood that the simplest way to deal with PTO is to simply give it to everyone. "That minimizes the potential of a lawsuit,'' he said. "If there is money hanging out there'' there is more chance of legal action.
Still, Russell said, "There are certain instances when I don't believe those awards should be made.''
Simply giving the PTO to everyone no matter what the circumstances of their departure, "that's a bad message we certainly need to refine,'' Russell said.
Druzbick said Nicolai made good points with her memo but that the county needs to craft something more specific, possibly mentioning examples of when PTO would be withheld.
"You want to be clear enough so that if that move is made (to change the policy), you've got good legal grounds to stand on,'' Druzbick said.
He added that he understood why the public would question why misbehaving county employees would be rewarded with a lump sum even after someone has been found to not do their job or not be trustworthy.
"In the private sector, somebody hurting my business or not doing their job would be out the door'' and would take no lump sum with them, Druzbick said.
And those lump sums can be costly.
In recent examples, fired public works director Charles Mixson took a lump sum of $30,064 and Mixson's fleet manager Jack Stepongzi, who quit while he was being investigated for collecting kickbacks from a firm doing business with his department, took $4,168.
"People shouldn't be getting money for bad behavior,'' said Commissioner Rose Rocco. She also said the county needs to do more research. "You've got to look case to case. You've got to have a very clear policy.''
There might also be some technical issues because the county now has a contract with employees who could be impacted by policy changes, Rocco said.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins said he also wanted to see more discussion of the issue and agreed that Nicolai's concerns were valid. "It'll come back" to a future meeting, he said.
Nicolai said Wednesday that it was up to commissioners whether to tweak the policy again. "It's their call but I'm on the record,'' she said. "I'm sure they have some legal issues they need to look at … but it just didn't make sense for them to just pay everybody.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.