The Covington City Council voted to change part of a motion it made a little more than a week prior concerning retired employees and their benefits Wednesday.
After an evening of plenty of heated debate, some legalese, a little political intrigue and much emotion, the Covington City Council decided to suspend enforcement of an action which didn’t restrict retired employees pensions if they were to be rehired. The motion made during a June 15 meeting encompassed both employees and elected officials. Wednesday’s called work session did not change the council’s ruling on elected officials.
The topic discussed was the controversial Provision 5.15, Section A of the city’s Defined Benefit Plan, which the council was just voted on to be removed.
Ocie Franklin, who was one of four voters at the June 15 meeting to approve a motion to strike the section of provision 5.15, requested the work session to discuss more the ramifications of the council’s decision.
With Covington’s Human Resource Director Ronnie Cowan on hand to answer questions, the council went back and forth on the pros and cons of its actions to strike part of the pension plan that said a retired city employee would have his or her retirement benefits suspended if they were to be rehired or elected to come back with the city.
Cowan explained to the council that though this provision has been on the books since the 1970s, the HR department has been looking at it since 2011 or 2012. After calls to the IRS and meetings with attorney Michael Marks and the city’s actuary, the issue of retired employees benefits being suspended if rehired or elected was brought up again on March 25. At that time, Cowan decided the issue of former employees wanting to run for city council should come before the board.
The pension committee then discussed it June 8, and determined that it go in front of the council, which it did June 15.
However, Cowan had some issue with the whole paragraph of Section A being removed, because as he told the council “there are some concerns with your amendment last week and what it is going to do to our hiring decision.”
“I think you guys went a little too far, Cowan added. “It creates some heartburn on my side. It doesn’t mean we can’t fix it. It doesn’t mean we can’t address it.”
The council did address it Wednesday after some debate about allowing city department heads to do their jobs. It then asked Cowan more questions pertaining to the legal aspects of hiring or not hiring a retired employee who would continue to earn a pension. He explained that the city had rehired retired workers in the past but brought the person in question as a temporary or contract employee.
With that being established the council the voted to suspend enforcement of the action that was taken to remove Provision 5.15, Section A unanimously.
“If you have people in the past you brought back and you put them on as a temporary employee to get around (the retirement provision), then I’m suggesting you lost the chance to make that decision,” Mayor Ronnie Johnston said. “All I’m suggesting is we take a breath and look at ways that we still have those options.”
While the council came to a unanimous decision regarding retired employees being hired, there was no change regarding retired employees being elected.
Several viewpoints on this matter was presented by both council members and citizens alike, such as James Alexander, Nat Harwell, Archi Shepherd and former Covington employee and council candidate Kenneth Morgan.
Alexander told the council that he felt if someone in a former management position were to be elected then employees would bypass their current manager and go straight to that elected official.
Morgan, a former city employee of 19 years, said that while he felt the motion to not restrict retirement benefits from former employees, he would run no matter the ruling.
Councilwoman Goodman said one of her fears of retired employees in office was the possibility of vengeance.
“If somebody worked here and got mad and decided to run, then the first thing they’re going to do is find fault in where they work or that department,” Goodman said. “There needs to be something done so you can’t get mad today and run two or three days after that.”
Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams also warned against the wrong motivation for retired employees in elected position, but in a more direct manner concerning rumors swirling around the council and the upcoming mayoral election.
“It’s a hidden agenda we have about someone we love that we want to put in office because we want to push somebody else to the curb,” Williams said. “There’s an agenda for getting someone out of office. Say (a person) becomes mayor, if they had years to be in the position of city manager, where we had a city manager everybody loves. But we also have a very qualified, very competent, well thought of city manager, who has been quite some time since she’s been here very much disrespected. This person will no longer be the go to person.
“We are digging a whole; we will never find an end; this will be a mess.”
Smith took umbrage with Williams’ comments, saying it was not about one person or one individual.
“For you to point one person out Mrs. Williams, I’m disappointed,” he said. “To sit here and dig it toward one person and say the city manager is not respected, I don’t appreciate it.”
Franklin then tried to bring it back to the matter at hand.
“I think this whole thing has been blown out of proportion because of personal feelings,” she said. “It’s not about personal feelings, it’s about doing what is right.”
After around 2 ½ hours of debate, the council decided to not make any changes to the elected officials side of the motion it made during its previous council meeting.