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Board approves separation agreement with city’s Human Resources director

By Bill ShortFlag City Logo

On a recommendation by the city attorney, the Millington Board of Mayor and Aldermen has approved a “separation agreement” with the former Human Resources director.
Board members took the action during their April 14 regular monthly meeting on a motion offered by Alderman Thomas McGhee and seconded by Alderman Larry Dagen. The motion was passed by a 5-2 vote, with Aldermen Mike Caruthers and Hank Hawkins dissenting.
Sam Underwood was hired on April 8, 2013 to replace Jeanne Decker, who had resigned three days earlier to accept a position in the private sector. His annual salary was $53,019.77, which is the “beginning amount” in the salary range for Millington’s city department directors.
City Attorney Charles Perkins said Underwood retained “a labor attorney” several months ago, because he felt that various individuals were “interfering with his job.”
After the lawyer sent a letter to Perkins and then contacted him, he told her that he did not understand what Underwood’s “complaint” or “claim” was. He said Underwood later submitted an 11-page “complaint” to the board detailing “a whole range of issues” regarding his position as personnel director.
Perkins said this was “a little disturbing” to then-interim city manager Mike Chesney, who scheduled a meeting with Underwood, along with new Interim City Manager Chris Dorsey and the city attorney.
But noting that Underwood did not attend the meeting, Perkins said he told Chesney that he had been “ill” in a hospital emergency room the night before. So, the meeting was rescheduled for another day.
Perkins said Underwood later told Chesney that he had surgery, and he sent a doctor’s note to the city manager.
Because Underwood has not returned to the city since the “original incident,” Perkins said he has used all of his sick days and vacation days.
Noting that he has negotiated with the lawyer “over a period of weeks,” the city attorney recommended that the board “settle this case” by approving 14 weeks of salary and 21 hours of vacation pay for Underwood in the “confidential agreement.”
Perkins called this “a real unfortunate situation,” because Underwood has “information” on all the city’s employees.
During discussion shortly before the vote, Caruthers said he was “very concerned” about setting a precedent and creating an “environment for layoffs to happen.” He told Dorsey to “get control” of that.
“You’re putting the board on the spot,” he said, “because we catch it after the fact. We’ve got to clean this mess up.”
But noting that this case arose “out of the blue,” McGhee said Underwood did not file a complaint before he retained an attorney. So, there was no indication that any kind of “intervention” was necessary.
“We do need you to get a handle on it,” he told Dorsey. “But I understand that this is not something that you could have forecast or have known.”
Although Underwood chose to pursue “legal guidance” in addressing perceived “mistreatment” in his employment, McGhee said it is still “unclear” where that occurred.
“But it is still an issue that is going to be on us,” he noted. “And it behooves us to take action while we can and minimize the potential liability that we might have.”
Millington resident Debra Sigee said it appeared to her that the board was “paying off” Underwood because it is “afraid” of what information he may have.
But contending that the board was not “getting rid” of Underwood, McGhee said he refused to come back to work or to attend a meeting to inform the city manager of his concerns.
He also expressed less concern about what Underwood might “disclose” than the fact that the city currently has no one performing the Human Resources director’s duties.
McGhee noted that addressing Underwood’s failure to report to work would merely be the “beginning” of the disciplinary process.
“Under the normal process of progressive discipline,” he said, “we would be months, if not years, down the road before we’d eventually be able to end the relationship. The options we have left to us are to go to court and risk spending more money and tax dollars toward attorneys and maybe win or not win.”
Fred Bailey of 6964 Northknoll Drive said he thinks the city’s residents have a right to know what Underwood’s complaint is. Because the board members campaigned for office on a pledge of “transparency,” he said the residents look for that.
“We’re going to hold you to that in an intelligent way,” Bailey noted. “We expect you all to do what you said you would do.”
But Alderman Bethany Huffman said that, if the residents were in Underwood’s “shoes,” they would want the board to respect their privacy and handle the situation in the “most delicate way” it could.
She said the board is hoping to get the “best resolution” it can for Underwood, the city’s employees and its residents.
“I just hope you can understand that and at least try to appreciate the situation we’re all in,” Huffman concluded. “It’s one we hope we’re not in again anytime soon.”

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