One side says it’s a form of censorship preventing them from keeping their jobs. The other side claims they were just cautioning workers on speaking as an unauthorized representative of the city. Nevertheless, the issue of privatization of public works continues to be a hot bed in Oakdale’s city government causing rift between affected line-level employees and city leaders.
According to Mike Eggener, Operating Engineers business representative for the public works employees, morale in the department is at an all-time low, especially with more than 20 city worker jobs on the line.
In addition, Eggener claims, public works employees were instructed by Interim City Manager Stan Feathers that information to be shared with the city council should go through the city manager’s office first.
This falling out comes on the heels of the July 2 city council meeting where public works privatization was discussed and more than 10 city workers spoke out, some suggesting alternatives to the executive staff-proposed contracting out of their services.
“I want to go on record that public employees still have a right to speak at meetings,” Eggener said at the July 16 Oakdale City Council Meeting. “Remember, council members here told public works employees to come forward with their ideas.”
Feathers said he had no problems with employees speaking at the public comment portion or on agenda items at meetings and would never infringe on their right to do so. He clarified that during a meeting with public works employees he directed them that protocol for department proposals or staff responses should go through the city staff first.
“If they’re speaking as an official of the city, that speaking should be cleared with the city manager’s office,” Feathers said.
Feathers identified the July 2 council meeting presentation by Public Works employee Chris Robinette regarding billing as the catalyst to him giving the direction since he was unaware of the plan.
“It’s always been my position to be receptive to ideas by employees,” Feathers said. “The best ideas come from those that do the job. Those ideas should come through the chain of command.”
Eggener claims all the workers who attended and spoke at the meeting were off-duty and had the right to speak about “matters of public concern” for which they cannot be disciplined.
This issue is not uncommon. Federal courts have ruled that labor activities by city employees including speaking at council meetings, addressing members of the public and meeting with city council members were protected by The First Amendment.,
Conversely, the Supreme Court has recognized that government employers must protect their business efficiency and determined that if an employee’s speech was disruptive or subversive to the employer’s interest in maintaining an efficient work place, the employer may take action to discipline the employee or curtail the speech.
“Ninety percent (of the workers) live in town so they’re citizens, voters, and taxpayers also,” said Eggener. “(Councilman Mike) Brennan also solicited employees to come forward with cost-saving ideas.”
When contacted, Brennan said he will listen to proposals by employees but needs to be careful in what’s discussed because of the city’s on-going contract negotiations with the workers