'At-will' may be done

County seeks 'for-cause' employment policy

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Kootenai County Board of Commissioners Chairman David Stewart, far left, speaks to a crowd of more than 100 as commissioners Dan Green and Marc Eberlein, far right, listen from their seats on the stage during a state of the county address hosted by the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce Wednesday at the Best Western Plus Coeur d’Alene Inn.

COEUR d'ALENE - The policy and process for firing or suspending Kootenai County employees are headed for major changes.

County Commissioners David Stewart and Marc Eberlein - both elected last fall - favor a personnel policy that establishes a clear process for firing employees. They're looking to overturn a policy set by the previous board of commissioners.

Stewart and Eberlein believe the new policy would open communication between the county and employees and provide the employees with opportunities to correct behavior and job performance before being terminated.

Currently, the county is an "at-will" employer, so employees can be fired at any time and with no reason given. No advance notice is required.

The current county personnel policy manual states "either the employee or Kootenai County may terminate employment at any time and for any reason."

Stewart and Eberlein recently gave direction to the county human resources department to begin the process of changing the policy to "for-cause" employment.

Commissioner Dan Green opposes making such a move.

A draft of the new policy says "employees of the county will not be suspended without pay, demoted with an accompanying change in pay, or discharged from their positions for disciplinary purposes except for cause related to performance of their job duties or other violations of this policy."

"I feel this policy change will make our employees feel more confident with their job security," Stewart told more than 100 business and community leaders on Wednesday at a Coeur d'Alene Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Best Western Plus Coeur d'Alene Inn.

All three commissioners spoke at the luncheon to update business leaders on the state of the county.

The county adopted the current at-will policy during Green's first term, a move he supported.

"I have to balance the question of employee morale and liability," Green told the audience. "And when I tip those scales, I will always put it to the liability side."

Green said his primary responsibility is watching out for the public's tax dollars. The at-will policy reduces on the county's liability, he said.

"The more steps in the process, the more places we trip up - and when we trip up we write a (legal settlement) check," Green said. "If you get rid of the process, you reduce your liability."

A policy change to for-cause employment would establish a minimum level - or baseline - process. Elected officials could decide to add protections and process steps.

Even though the current baseline policy is at-will, some elected officials - like the county treasurer - already practice a for-cause-type policy. The Kootenai County Sheriff's Office also practices a for-cause policy.

Stewart said changes to the baseline policy could be complete within a month.

The commissioners will next ask other elected officials at the county to review the draft policy changes and provide feedback.

Stewart believes the changes will improve employee morale, which should improve performance and customer service.

"It does provide some protection for the employees," Stewart said in an interview. "It's one thing to come and do this job every day. It's another thing to come do this job thinking today might be the day that the guy who has been after me for a year fires me."

A change to for-cause employment would not apply to elected officials' chief deputies, temporary employees or deputy prosecutors, the draft policy states.

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