The Pulaski County Commissioners have fired county highway superintendent Kenny Becker, according to a news release issued Monday evening by the county auditor's office.
The commissioners held an executive session earlier in the day (Feb. 25) to discuss the performance evaluation of Becker as the general manager of the highway department. Becker is expected to file a legal claim against the countyfor wrongful action.
The statement released by the commissioners said Monday's performance review covered the period of time since Becker's change of position earlier this month from highway superintendent to general manager with oversight by county commissioner Larry Brady.
The news release continued that Becker "was commended on his role in helping with some of the positive changes at the highway department in the last three weeks."
But the statement also noted that Becker was "presented with new policy violations that have been observed by Brady since his oversight."
The commissioners discussed the issue of Becker’s knowledge of the policy book and his observance of it. Brady, as acting department head informed Becker of his removal as general manager and termination of his employment with the county.
The news release added "this is in no way a negative reflection on Mr. Becker as a good moral person. Mr. Becker has proved to be a hard-working individual with a good deal of specialized ability. The performance review indicates that Mr. Becker was not the best option for the highway department for going forward."
State law allows personnel matters to be discussed in an executive (non-public) session, but requires any vote to terminate be taken in an open meeting. Normally a 48-hour notice of a specially-called public meeting must be posted.
In a phone interview with the Post Tuesday morning, county attorney Kevin Tankersley denied the commissioners had acted inappropriately, asserting the county does not deal with personnel matters publicly as a matter of protecting the privacy of its employees. He added, however, that he expects Monday's executive session decision to be confirmed at the commissioners next regular meeting March 4.
But the legal interpretation of this action, particularly as it pertains to open door rules, remains under debate.
Specifically, Indiana Open Door Law allows for executive sessions "to discuss a job performance evaluation of individual employees."
One legal opinion, written in a guidebook for public entities by attorney John Molitor regarding Indiana's public access laws, states that "a governing body may not take 'final action' on any matter in an executive session. Moreover, a governing body may not vote on any motion; this includes making a decision to hire or fire an employee."
In not being permitted to disclose the executive session discussion, Tankersley, on behalf of the commissioners, has acknowledged the frustration of the public in its bewilderment over the dismissal of the long-time, respected county highway superintendent. The attorney added that Becker may speak on the matter if he chooses, although he would advise him against it.
Tankersley also confirmed over the phone that during Brady's three-week observation period, the commissioner alleged that Becker violated several county policies in his new role as general manager.
One purported violation that has been reported is that Becker has allowed employees to leave work 15 minutes early and have one person clock them out at the appropriate quitting time. Becker has explained this to WNDU-TV, saying employees who did so were still technically working; they take snow plows home in case of an emergency. Becker said it would be a liability to the county to allow employees to drive the plows home on personal time.
Becker, and administrative assistant Lin Morrison, were suspended with pay in January while the commissioners hired outside consultants to investigate operations at the highway department. At the time, the commissioners claimed they had received complaints about operations at the department from several sources. The suspensions stirred community outrage, resulting from what many felt was a lack of satisfactory explanation.
Morrison was soon returned to her position, and Becker was later demoted to general manager. The investigation, the commissioners said, revealed no criminal activity in the department, but did reveal some possible county policy violations.
Becker has retained the legal counsel of Valparaiso attorney Steven Bush who reportedly plans to file a tort claim notice against the county commissioners, attorney and auditor. Once it's filed, they'll have 90 days to respond before Becker can file a lawsuit.
"I fully anticipate, at least based on the last conversation with my client, that we would not be going to the effort to file a tort claim notice if his intent was not to follow through, unless there is some reasonable resolution to his issues," Bush told WNDU-TV Tuesday. He added that, at that time, his client hadn't received the documentation requested regarding his termination.
It has also been reported that Becker turned in a resignation on behalf of Lin Morrison at Monday's executive session.