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Bulloch County commissioners uphold clerks firing
Tom Couch Web
County Manager Tom Couch

Revealed during the hearing
    In the past two years, Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch did not conduct annual job evaluations of county employees under his direct supervision. Michael Classens, attorney for fired Board of Commissioners Clerk Christy Strickland, made a point of this, suggesting that Couch would discipline departmental supervisors who failed to do evaluations.
    The county's policy doesn't actually state that employees are entitled to bereavement leave when their grandparents die but authorizes it for deaths of parents, spouses, children and grandchildren. Three days is the maximum.
    Classens acknowledged that Couch has discretion to make special conditions — he called them policies — for particular employees. The county's employment policy does not appear to limit this discretion, at least in the quick look Couch gave it under questioning from Classens.
    "So, there's nothing in here," Classens said, holding the policy book. "You have unbridled discretion to do anything you want, any time at all, regarding any employee, in spite of the fact that it's inconsistent with the specific or general policy that's in here?"
    "I would argue that I do not have unbridled discretion," Couch replied. "However, I believe I have reasonable discretion and that I exercise reasonable discretion."

Fired for missing work and failing to bring medical excuses specifically required of her, Christy Strickland, the clerk of the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners, appealed to the board. But at the end of a hearing Monday night, the commissioners unanimously upheld County Manager Tom Couch's decision.

Strickland worked nine years for the county government and was promoted to clerk of the board and license administrator in November 2012. Couch gave her the termination notice Aug. 22, 2014, after an Aug. 19 "progressive corrective action" notice warning of this.

"I have not intentionally violated the County Attendance and (Punctuality) Policy," Strickland wrote Couch in a reply letter. "Have things come up? Yes, I am single mother of two children who are my responsibility. ... My mother, who is the only parent I have, had a traumatic injury on May 29, 2014 which has put a damper on her helping me with the girls and also requiring me to care for her."

Strickland's mother, her arm in a complicated brace from a fall that required surgery, sat in the county commissioners' meeting room during Monday's hearing.

Adding to Strickland's load this summer, one of her children has been diagnosed with a medical condition that causes blinding headaches, according to Strickland's letter and statements during the hearing. Also, her grandmother was placed in hospice care June 12 and died June 17.

Couch authorized the three days Strickland took off at the time of her grandmother's death as bereavement leave, and these were not counted in the cause for her firing but were mentioned in her letter and during the hearing.

The county's attendance policy states that three unscheduled absences or days late in any three-month period would be excessive and could subject employees to corrective action. Citing a "pattern of unscheduled absences and reporting" in an April 3 memo to Strickland, Couch placed special conditions on her that are not part of the policy but that he said were warranted as corrective action. He required that, for the next six months, she provide medical certification of any illness of hers, or school certification of any absence by her children, within 48 hours of missing work.

In the Aug. 19 warning letter, Couch noted a June 13 absence, claiming Strickland reported she would be absent for illness but provided no medical documentation. But in the termination notice, Couch acknowledged that he had informally authorized her sick leave to visit her grandmother in hospice on June 13 and did not count it against her.

One absence he did count in the firing notice was July 23, when Strickland had reported her daughter was ill. School was not in session that day, so no excuse from a school could be required, Couch acknowledged.

"However, this is still an occurrence of an unscheduled absence," he wrote.

He also counted her early departures from work July 25 and Aug. 18 and an Aug. 11 absence due to a child's illness. She later provided a school absence report on her daughter, but not within the 48 hours required under the April 3 letter.

With questions to Couch, lawyer George Rountree, who represented the county at the hearing, indicated three confirmed unexcused absences for August and two for July, adding up to five absences in two months, and suggested other combinations from earlier months that would have exceeded the maximum.

The first point in the termination notice, alleged discrepancies in accrued sick leave and annual leave self-reported by Strickland in monthly statements, appeared to fall apart when Strickland's attorney, Michael Classens, cross-examined Couch.

As Couch admitted, Strickland actually had shorted herself 10 hours sick leave and 10 hours annual leave in self-reporting in 2013, and another 10 hours shortage in leave time earlier this year subsequently was corrected.

Strickland's June and July statements had shown large increases in accrued leave, above what she actually earned. But Classens led Couch through some step-by-step math, showing that the numbers tracked closely with Strickland attempting to use leave totals from check stubs on the leave sheet. The county began using software in January that puts accumulated leave numbers on check stubs.

County Payroll and Benefits Coordinator Linda Morris explained how the pay stub information is generally correct for wage earners but inaccurate for salaried employees, such as Strickland. In her reply letter to Couch, Strickland said Morris had advised her to rely on the check stub information, but Morris testified that she had not given this advice. Strickland had a nearly perfect attendance record at meetings of boards where she took minutes, including the Board of Commissioners, the Planning and Zoning Board and the Airport Committee.

Couch, however, said that Strickland had attendance problems during the work day beginning long before the most recent six months. The clerk needs to be "reliably present" in her licensing duties and as a face and greeter for the Board of Commissioners, Couch asserted. Her absences, he said, disrupted work flow and affected morale.

But Classens observed that Strickland had earned her sick and annual leave through years of prior service. Her remaining leave when dismissed amounted to 153 hours, or "almost a month of 40-hour weeks," Classens said.

The hearing began at 5:30 p.m. and lasted five hours.

County employees who testified were sworn in by attorneys, but the hearing was not subject to the rules of evidence that apply in court. So, no objections were raised to statements that might have been regarded as hearsay. County Attorney Jeff Akins served as parliamentarian while Rountree and Classens questioned witnesses.

The commissioners met in closed deliberation about half an hour before reconvening to vote.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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