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Oakridge City Administrator: “We’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”

Oakridge City Hall Herald photo

By GEORGE CUSTER/Editor/The Herald  —  Thursday evening’s council workshop was called for two reasons. The meeting would bring to the public’s attention, and to place on record the concerns that discrepancies were discovered in both the city’s hiring procedures and payments made to city employees.

How the meeting came to be

During the last couple of weeks, an Oakridge citizen had brought to the attention of Councilor Dirk “Poncho” Tarman that he believed that a member of the fire department was recording overtime hours that were not being worked. Secondly, Tarman was concerned over the cost of eight months of paid leave being given to another employee while under an investigation that was announced in an article recently published by The Herald.

Tarman took this concern to City Administrator James Cleavenger. Tarman asked, and Cleavenger agreed, to look into the matter. Cleavenger said he would get back to Tarman. After a reasonable time had passed, no report was given.

At this point, Tarman made a request for documents from the city. Tarman was given the fiscal year-to-date wages and benefits paid to city employees, the exempt salary schedule, and the volunteer payments through April 8, 2024. Fire Chief Scott Hollett’s employment contract had been asked for, as well, citing wages that were outside that allowed by the city’s Exempt Salary Schedule. That document could not be produced as there was no contract on file.

Discrepancies in the data

After a cursory review of the data, Tarman approached Mayor Cutchen. Cutchen and Tarman approached Cleavenger with concerns beyond the original timecard discrepancy. Several disturbing inconsistencies had been discovered in payments made concerning the “buy back” of over-accumulated vacation pay by several employees. These amounts were well in excess of amounts allowed by the city’s employee handbook that was approved by the council in 2021.

Confronted with this information, Cleavenger asked the city attorney if this matter could be discussed amongst council in a closed executive session. The advice of the attorney was no. The matter did not qualify for executive session; it would have come to a public meeting.

When the requested documents were delivered to Tarman, he noticed that the fire chief’s contract had just been signed on April 8. The effective date of the contract would be July 1, 2024. The lucrative contract had been written by Cleavenger after he discovered that a contract had not been put into place at the time council, led by then Mayor Christina Hollett, anointed Scott Hollett the position of Fire Chief.

The workshop begins: The hiring process

The CA immediately jumped into the hiring process of Maintenance Supervisor Robeart Chrisman, Police Chief Kevin Martin, and Fire Chief Scott Hollett. Cleavenger reviewed what he knew to be the history of the hiring of, specifically, Chief Hollett. The focus on chief Hollett was not only because of the lateness of signing a contract, but also because of the amount being paid to the chief, despite the mayor’s admonishment that the “city doesn’t have that kind of funds”.

The CA pointed out that the city attorney, who had been told by Scott Hollett that he would be the new fire chief, did not ask if a contract had been signed. Hollett had been promoted to fire chief while Police Chief Martin was assigned as pro tem city administrator in July 2022. As pro tem CA, Martin would not be able to execute an employment contract.

Cleavenger said he believed that “We’re making a mountain out of a molehill.” and that “it’s been blown out of proportion”. This was, seemingly, an attempt to minimize the seriousness of the situation. The published agenda was vague, only indicating that the workshop’s purpose was to “discussion of the city’s hiring and promotion policies”.

Cleavenger: There are things that we should fix

Cleavenger went on to apologize, pleading ignorance to the lack of contracts for the three individuals. He then proceeded to give the background, starting in 2021 through the present, on the process through which Hollett was made fire chief. He justified Hollett’s 34 years of service as reason enough for him to be fire chief, regardless of procedures required by city policy and Hollett’s previous lack of experience as a fire chief. Cleavenger did acknowledge “that there are things that we should fix in our policies so that it doesn’t happen again.”

It was noted by Cleavenger, almost as an aside, that Lt. Jim Cole, one of the four fulltime fire employees, has resigned. Cole was the person accused of falsifying overtime hours. At another point, it was overheard that Justin Mock, the employee who had been under investigation for eight months, has been terminated. With these vacancies, the city is left with only two permanent fire staff. It was noted that the CA can bypass requirements for hiring in “unusual circumstances”. Filling these vacancies might fall into this category.

Councilor Dawn Kinyon asked Cleavenger “What parts of the employee handbook needs to be changed and what that change would look like.” She then asked, “How did these concerns get expressed to you?” Mayor Cutchen said that he and Councilor Tarman had requested the data, as previously mentioned.

Tarman stated that he not only had questions about overtime but also longevity pay being added to salaries versus that dictated by the handbook. A discussion occurred where Chief Hollett spoke and attempted to explain his understanding of application of longevity raises.

The employee handbook provides a framework for staff to operate within

With no other councilor wishing to comment at the time, Mayor Cutchen spoke. He explained that the council adopted the employee handbook that was “to provide a framework for the staff to operate within.” It was written by CIS and therefore he saw no reason to modify it. His point was that the city needed to follow the handbook as it is in compliance with appropriate statutes.

Kinyon spoke, when asked by the mayor, if any of the council members who were on council when Chief Hollett was promoted if it was approved by council? A pro tem city administrator cannot approve a promotion without council’s approval. She remembered that it was an emergency situation because Cleavenger said that he could not perform the duties of fire chief, which came with the position of city administrator at the time.

Why are these issues being brought up now

Councilor Kelly Brewer questions why this is all coming up now? Mayor Cutchen responded that upon being shown the data from the records request, that some of the data looked atypical and out of the ordinary and possibly in violation of the employee handbook. “I think we learn from our mistakes from the past, instead of brushing under the rug like nothing ever happened” Cutchen said.

Councilor Brewer went on to ask again why the public records request and why now? What brought this to the point that we were like, “Oh somethings not right here. For me, James did exactly what it says in the handbook”, she said. She also went on to compliment and praise Chief Hollett and his longevity. She continued, saying that “…with all the drama, people don’t want to come here and work for pennies on the dollar with a bunch of stress.”

Councilor Kinyon asked who made the public records request. Councilor Tarman stated that he had, based on questions about following process. Kinyon responded that “Maybe what we should do is hire someone that should be on duty, all day, every day until the CA quits…”.

She thanked Cleavenger on doing his job. Kinyon asked, “What is the problem then? How can we possibly make sure, that in a freakin’ crisis situation, everything, every policy is being followed all the time”

Tarman reiterated again why he had requested the data.

Councilor Kinyon asked who called for the meeting? Cleavenger announced that he had.

The second issue: vacation time buybacks

Mayor Cutchen moved to the next issue: vacation time. He started by talking about how the employee handbook caps vacation time carry over from year-to-year and sell-back limits without the CA’s approval. The data showed an astronomical accrual. Several claims were excessive, the main one being over 500 hundred hours.  The CA requires approval from the mayor for any of his buyback. Cutchen said that the buybacks that were paid out amounted to “thousands, and thousands, and thousands of dollars.”

Cleavenger used historical data to defend existing lucrative contracts. Cutchen retorted that “A bad contract is a bad contract; this is overly generous.” A discussion ensued about the accrual and buyback of vacation time, with Ms. Brewer reading an excerpt from the employee manual.

After Councilor Tarman, once again, stated why there was a question about overtime by a fire department employee, Cleavenger acknowledged that the finance director entered the wrong shift rate. Edward “Jim” Cole will be paying those hours back.

Mayor Cutchen asked how the overpayments were going to be handled? Cleavenger insisted that the employees earned those hours. Cutchen stated that they were only allowed to carry “x” number of days. Cleavenger said that they earned it. “We tell employees that you can earn the time, but you can’t take it! That’s not fair.” Cutchen countered: “The book is the book; you have to follow the rules.” Cutchen’s concern was the impact on the city’s finances. He mentioned that one buyback was for $26,000 dollars (exhaled whistles were heard in the room upon hearing this amount). Cleavenger asked if that was his? Cutchen acknowledged that it was his. Cleavenger proudly announced that he took zero vacation or sick days for six years as a police officer. He went on to say that he earned that time, “so I cashed it out.”

Cutchen noted that, despite his contract, the amount carried over was well in excess of what was allowed previously.

Councilor Brewer then read an excerpt from the union handbook that had been included in the councilor’s packet. Cutchen then read the similar applicable section from the employee handbook that pertained to buyouts and who could authorize such. Brewer cited a section on sick day accrual. Cutchen said that he saw no discrepancies in sick day accrual.

Cleavenger then cited federal law concerning sick leave. There were no comments to his admission. This possibly being made in reference to the finance director being on leave for twelve weeks.

The mayor again asked how the city will correct the buybacks and excess accruals?

No contract for fire chief existed for last two years

Cutchen then brought up the subject of the future contract signed by the CA for the fire chief. He believes that there was oversight in negotiating the lucrative contract and that he believes that the city can’t afford this kind of contract. Councilor Kinyon downplayed last year’s budgeting issues and believes that this coming year will be different. She also believes that the pay for Hollett is not a big number.

*As of April 8,2024, Chief Hollett has received $141,195.25 in pay, overtime, retroactive, and sold back vacation hours with nearly three months remaining in this fiscal year.

Cleavenger’s research on fire chief pay indicates that Hollett’s pay is reasonable. Cutchen responding that, considering the city’s unknown financial state, “how do we even know what we can afford?”

Ms. Brewer made an observation concerning the maintenance supervisor’s pay being not that less than “…the man who rushes into fires every day.”

Councilor Coker asked how long has the city known that Mr. Cole is leaving? Chief Hollett responded that “He did give us a 30-day notice.”

Competitive hiring results in better employees

The mayor stated that the city will get great employees when you offer competitive hiring, and you get more choices. He questioned why the city is so focused on hiring internally.

When asked there were no other public comments. Kinyon then indicated that she heard a “witch hunt” against Scott Hollett and vacation buyouts. Cutchen retorted that the meeting was not about Hollett but about the hiring process. He went on to say that Chief Hollett is a very good fire chief but that Cutchen was concerned about how we hire internally, and that the city should look at all qualified people.

When asked by Kinyon as to what the process should be, Cutchen explained that process, which is in accordance with the employee handbook. He said that the city shouldn’t hire on emotions.

Cutchen’s previous hiring as CA was totally different

Kinyon then responded by asking how to make sure that the CA is hiring correctly. Cutchen’s response was that the CA should be asked if he has read the employee handbook. He said that when he was hired there was a civilian committee that interviewed him as well as an open meet at Greenwaters Park. Cutchen asked about the process for Cleavenger’s hiring. Kinyon indicated that it was posted online. Councilor Coker spoke up correcting Kinyon and stated that the online site was not open to the public.

Cleavenger still insisted that the hiring of Chief Hollett fell under unusual circumstances. He also agreed that competitive hiring is better.

Lastly, just before the meeting closed, Councilor Tarman uttered the word nepotism. Councilor Hollett, who had said nothing during the entire meeting, lashed back at Tarman for inferring nepotism. She said there was no nepotism and that she had nothing to do with it [Scott’s promotion to fire chief]. Tarman responded that the constituents might look at it unfavorably.

When approached after the meeting, Tarman said that “In my opinion, the reality is, that if there’s an appearance of nepotism, the public will perceive it as such.”

* This data was derived from the City of Oakridge pay and allowance spreadsheet provided to The Herald.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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